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New Orleans: Inevitable?

The story of New Orleans is a long one, and it's full of bad decisions.

The original decision in the early 1700s to levee the river in order to build a "permanent" settlement on the floodplain is just about the worst. But once that bad decision was made, we could have done more to postpone the inevitable return of New Orleans to the sea. Perhaps we could have even postponed it long enough to organize an orderly evacuation of the whole city to higher ground. As it is, we didn't do our best. Hurricane Katrina took aim at the inadequate levees, and the people of New Orleans got only a day's notice to evacuate. The poor, sick, and elderly, who couldn't evacuate themselves quickly enough, paid the price.

When a city like New Orleans, built in a floodplain below sea level that's in the path of hurricanes, gets flooded under fifteen feet of water, its a little inapposite to go assigning responsibility for the disaster on this guy or that guy. Nature just kind of did its thing, and no mere human being can stand up and take the credit. Some newspaper editorial pages like the NYT have already started criticizing President Bush for the stuttering federal response to this catastrophe, but I think it's a bit premature. This is mostly a natural disaster for which Mother Nature is responsible (not a political or foreign-policy disaster like Iraq, for which Bush is responsible).

Nevertheless, although the flooding of New Orleans was inevitable, we ought to distinguish between several different kinds of inevitability. For example, it's inevitable that the Sun is eventually going to burn up all its fuel and slowly bloat into a red giant, engulfing the Earth. It's not likely that anyone will be able to do anything about that.

This disaster wasn't inevitable in the same way. People could have done much more to postpone the New Orleans flood, or to mitigate its effects. If we had acted differently, there'd be a lot fewer dead and displaced people -- mostly poor, sick, and elderly people that couldn't evacuate themselves -- along the Gulf Coast than there are now. This disaster was the result of human mistakes. It was inevitable simply because we can't ever expect humans not to make these mistakes. We aren't perfect and we never will be, but the point is that if we had acted just a little less imperfectly, New Orleans wouldn't be flooded right now.

Consider, for example, that we knew the marshy wetlands of the Mississippi River Delta were crucial for protecting the city from a storm surge, but we allowed them to be degraded and destroyed anyway. We also knew that the levees protecting New Orleans from floodwaters needed to be improved to protect against powerful hurricanes, yet we refused to spend the money to improve them. Senator Mary Landrieu of Lousiana sounds prophetic in this June 6, 2005 article on the budget cuts for the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers:

"I think it's extremely shortsighted, Landrieu said. When the Corps of Engineers' budget is cut, Louisiana bleeds. These projects are literally life-and-death projects to the people of south Louisiana and they are (of) vital economic interest to the entire nation."
Yes, the levee projects were literally life-and-death (mostly death) and everyone pumping gas at $3 or more a gallon recognizes their economic interest in the health of the Gulf Coast now. (Thanks to Swing State Project for the links.)

Regardless of whether the Congress, the President, or the local leadership in Louisiana is most to blame for postponing the construction of more adequate levees, the point is that someone, somewhere, screwed up. The fact that flooding was inevitable doesn't mean that sudden, catastrophic flooding that kills potentially more than a thousand people and leaves many more homeless was also inevitable.

Comments

Very intelligent analysis. I would have added two more points. one, that New Orleans is/was so far below sea level largely because of subsidence. This in turn was largely due to too much withdrawl of ground water. Ground water holds up the land to some extent. This is something that people whould be made aware of. Also, I would like to know how many members of the Lousiana, Mississippi, and Alabama National Guards are currently serving in Iraq.
BTW, I'm thinking the law school should set up some sort of benefit event. If anyone is interested in helping, please let me know.

The blame that is surfacing for president Bush is due to the over-extension of resources due to the war for Iraq. Also related to Iraq, if we cannot plan for prevention and then *rebuilding* and *order* in an American city, the chances of acheiving the same thing in Iraq are depressingly small.

Are you aware that Bush had knowledge from the Army Corps of Engineers that the levees could only withstand winds up to 115 mph and that Bush was getting continuous updates from NOAA on the speed of the winds of Katrina? Did he willfully choose to ignore this crucial information and not help evacuate those that didn't have the means to do it themselves and then continue to pour salt into their wounds by responding so slowly in the aftermath, or is he the complete and total idiot I've thought all along?