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Hurricane Katrina: A natural disaster or a failure of governance?

By Brian Azcona  Posted by Dave Zirin (about the submitter)     Permalink
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In the wake of this devastating Hurricane, when the thousands of stranded people have finally been moved to dry ground, people will rightly question how such a disaster could occur. Some may point figures at government, blaming the Army Corps of Engineers for faulty construction. Others may attribute the disaster to the power of the storm. If we wish to learn something from this nightmare, it makes sense to concentrate on those factors over which we can exert some influence: the human dimensions.

From 2001-2003 I worked as a research assistant and independent contractor for the Center For Hazards Assessment Response Technologies, a research center at the University of New Orleans committed to integrating social science into environmental management. Our team of researchers drafted evacuation studies, participated in the construction of government reports, and wrote scholarly articles. While my limited experience does not represent a full insider's perspective into the larger policy-making machine of Louisiana, it hopefully conveys an appreciation for the central issues behind this catastrophic event.

Media commentators treat Katrina as the culmination of the bad idea called New Orleans: a city whose precarious existence is the fault of poor site selection. They have ignored the more recent history of dramatic landscape alterations, which exacerbated the city's susceptibility to floods. In the last century, over 1.2 million acres of Louisiana's land have disappeared, in large part as a consequence of land-use that includes oil, gas, and timber extraction; industrial, commercial, agricultural, and residential development.

These economic activities demanded erosion-causing modifications to the landscape such as canals, levees, and drainage. Historically, these wetlands provided invaluable flood protection by acting as a sponge to soak up the menace of storm surge. Now the open water, which sits where land once stood, provides fuel to the fury of hurricanes.

Additionally, the developed land cannot absorb storm surge or torrential rains. The compacted soils, pavement and concrete mean that all water must eventually go back to the Gulf. Over the years, unsustainable economic growth has translated into more water, more danger, and a greater catastrophe.

To combat this problem, the Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana governmental agencies have aggressively promoted coastal restoration. Policy-makers acknowledged the only way to save southeast Louisiana and New Orleans was to rebuild the coastal wetlands. On a superficial level, all interest groups in the state including big oil supported restoration, or at least the quest for 14 billion dollars of federal funds to finance restoration construction projects. To date, over a billion dollars have been spent on actual projects, such as the fresh water diversion projects which flood areas in a controlled fashion to replenish sediments (see www.lacoast.gov).
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Despite the good intensions of many policy-makers, glaring inconsistencies in government precluded the mitigation of tragedy. Unsustainable development has continued unabated and without public discourse, and the most critical government agency, Army Corps of Engineers, refused to correct previous mistakes that made erosion and flooding worse.

By far, the most offensive example of this contradiction in policy involves a canal called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO). Eyewitness accounts, hydraulic models and newspaper reports suggest this waterway brought in the storm surge that broke the levee in eastern New Orleans. These areas have experienced the most severe flooding, including the destruction of at least 40,000 homes. Nobody knows how many people have lost their lives.

The MR-GO is a 70-mile ship channel that connects the Port of New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico in a route as straight as a ruler. It began as a bad idea from the Port of New Orleans to promote economic growth. The Corps initiated construction in the late 1950s when boosters for the Port claimed that the MR-GO would convert New Orleans into the next Rotterdam and encourage an "industrial renaissance" in St. Bernard Parish. These lofty ambitions never materialized: the only growth locals witnessed occurred in the canal itself, which expanded from its original width of 500 feet to 2500 feet in some places because the wake of giant ships causes the canal's banks to collapse. Critics attributed over 40,000 acres of wetland loss to this "marsh-eating monster" and described it as a "hurricane superhighway" that would exacerbate the risk of deadly floods.

In response, a number of committed individuals and organizations demanded that the Corps close the MR-GO (e.g. Coalition to Close MR-GO, Gulf Restoration Network, Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, and St. Bernard Sportsman's League). While the Corps preached the virtues of restoration, it refused to correct its own deeds of environmental destruction. It ignored the public outcry; it failed to seriously take into account public safety; its policy protected not people but the economic interest of port industry and steamship companies.

The MR-GO represents the most egregious tension between environmental protection and public safety with the money-making imperative of unfettered business interests. Despite the widely acknowledged problem of land loss with all its consequences for flooding, government agencies have made no real attempt to mediate this conflict. With all the attention on creating new land, government shirked its responsibility to protect what still existed.

The break in the levees that has led to the inundation of the New Orleans area constitutes more than an engineering failure. It signifies a failure of our governing institutions to represent and serve the public interest; it represents a failure in the promises of economic development to improve the quality of life in our communities. On the national level, I think it reveals a poverty of the American imagination, which refuses to dream of workable solutions to our real ecological problems, and which is mindlessly forced to seek salvation through the ostensibly free market and the promise of growth.
It is impossible to say if even the most revolutionary thinking in planning and environmental management could have quelled the destruction of Katrina, but it is certain that business as usual guaranteed it.

Brian Azcona blazcona@ku.edu Brian Azcona was born in New Orleans and has taught sociology at Xavier University and the University of New Orleans. As part of his research for the Center of Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans, he examined the interrelationships between culture, politics, economy and Louisiana coastal land loss. He is currently working on his PhD in sociology at the University of Kansas.
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