Amid the ongoing state of emergency, chaos and destruction, not to mention mortalities, in the three southern states due to Hurricane Katrina, questions are now starting to be asked re possible causes and if the disaster could have been limited if not avoided.
Can lessons be learnt to avoid similar calamities in the future?
Why city’s defences were down
Cuts in spending to raise levees blamed on cost of war in Iraq
John Vidal, environment editor, and Duncan Campbell
Thursday September 1, 2005
The Louisiana coastline may have been so badly damaged by the hurricane because manmade engineering of the delta has led to erosion of natural defences, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The engineering of the last 100 years that has reworked the Mississippi delta with thousands of miles of levees and flood barriers to protect communities and aid navigation, has also disturbed natural barriers which traditionally prevented storm surges and protected against hurricanes, says the society.
“Human activity, directly or indirectly, has caused 1,500 square miles of natural coastal barriers to be eroded in the past 50 years. Human activity has clearly been a significant factor in coastal Louisiana land losses, along with subsidence, saltwater intrusion, storm events, barrier island degradation, and relative sea level changes,” the society said in a paper last year.
It warned that “New Orleans and surrounding areas would now experience the full force of hurricanes, including storm surges that top levee systems and cause severe flooding as well as high winds”.
The damage done this time may be also linked to White House cuts in funding for hurricane defence to pay for homeland security terrorist defences.
Lloyd Dumas, professor of political economy and economics at the University of Texas at Dallas, criticised the government’s failure to oversee a more efficient evacuation. “It’s remarkable that with the massive restructuring of the federal government that took place with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, they don’t have more well thought-out plans to evacuate a city like New Orleans,” he said.
“An emphasis should be placed on plans that have multiple purposes, like evacuation plans for a city like New Orleans that can of course be useful in the event of a terrorist attack but also in the event of a natural disaster like this one … There were plans during the cold war to evacuate major cities in a few days.”
Professor Dumas added that not enough provision seemed to have been made for poor people. “There doesn’t seem to have been much attention paid to people who didn’t have private automobiles,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything about school buses or city buses being used to aim people out of town.” He said that there appeared to be little forward planning to cater to those on low incomes who would be unable to return to their homes for up to two months but who would not have the money to pay for that time in a hotel. “The Department of Homeland Security says on its website that it deals with natural disasters,” he said. “They don’t seem to have done a very good job. There doesn’t seem to have been any long-term planning.”
The war in Iraq was also being seen as playing a part in the federal response to the crisis. Many members of the National Guard who would normally have been swiftly mobilised to help in evacuation are on duty in Iraq. Although US air force, navy and army units were deployed to assist, the locally-based National Guard is depleted by the demands of the war.
New Orleans, which is in a natural basin on the Mississippi floodplain, is on average about six feet below sea level and theoretically protected by the most sophisticated levee system in the world. According to the US corps of army engineers, which is responsible for maintaining flood defences, more than 1,200 miles of levees and floodwalls have been built to protect the city from the Mississippi and from hurricanes.
The corps has long wanted to strengthen some of the levees which have been sinking, and on its website yesterday said it planned to build a further 74 miles of hurricane defences. But according to local media, it was last year refused extra funding by the White House which wanted to save money to pay for homeland security against terrorism. “In its budget, the Bush administration proposed a significant reduction in funding for south-east Louisiana’s chief hurricane protection project. Bush proposed $10.4m, a sixth of what local officials say they need,” reported Newhouse News Service yesterday.
Local officials are saying, the article claimed, that had Washington heeded warnings about the dire need for extra hurricane protection, including building up levees and repairing barrier islands, “the damage might not have been nearly as bad as it turned out to be”.
Last year Walter Maestri, emergency chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, one of the worst affected areas, reportedly told the Times-Picayune newspaper: “It appears that the money [for strengthening levees against hurricanes] has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”
In June 2004, the corps’ project manager, Al Naomi, went before a local agency, the East Jefferson Levee Authority, and requested $2m for “urgent work” that Washington was now unable to pay for. “The levees are sinking,” he said. “Everything is sinking, and if we don’t get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can’t stay ahead of the settlement.”
Katrina in numbers
110 dead in Mississippi alone; hundreds more feared dead across wider region
5m people without power
400,000 inhabitants flee New Orleans
40,000 in 200 Red Cross shelters, including 23,000 holed up in Superdome stadium
3,000 people rescued by boat and air
90% of coastal buildings in Biloxi and Gulfport destroyed
6 metres of water in New Orleans
80% of city flooded
$26bn clear-up cost