Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Katrina/Rita Lesson 1: Protection

As we all know now, the levees in the New Orleans were not adequate to withstand the wind and rain from hurricane Katrina. The problem was recognized at least 40 years ago when hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in 1965.

President Johnson ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to improve the levees. Construction projects of that size do take time. The initial plan was stopped in 1977 after an environmental group, Save Our Wetlands, won a lawsuit concerning the Corps's environmental study. Rather than jump through all the hoops all over again, including gaining the political approvals again, the Corps switched to a simpler plan to shore up the levees to handle a category 3 hurricane instead of continuing with the initial plan to reduce the storm-surge pressure on the levees.

Over the years since 1965, Congress never appropriated money to build levees to withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane. During that time, Louisiana's senators and representatives earmarked money for dozens and hundreds of specific projects, but those projects did not include improving the levees. Since the environmental group sued to stop the initial project, no president (3 Republicans and 2 Democrats) has requested the funds to improve the levees. The state of Louisiana and the local governments in the New Orleans also failed to provide funding for improving the levees.

The lesson is twofold. First, the environmental laws are flawed because they do not take into account the safety of people, which should be the highest priority. Second and most important, people will postpone high-cost projects designed to protect people from an infrequent but catastrophic event. The financial and political cost today is high, the political benefit today is small, and the potentially high cost in lives and property damage is in the indefinite future.

Without the pressure of a recent disaster, government and voters are reluctant to pay the necessary but high price to protect people's lives and property at some indefinite time in the future. This is an unfortunate aspect of human nature and the political process. Until voters demand better, nothing will change.


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