America Is Forgetting the Lessons It Never Learned from Hurricane Katrina

I-10 looking west over the 17th Street canal (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

As the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approached, I did not plan to write about it. Yes, I thought about doing something. Three years before the disaster, I had worked on a Times-Picayune series warning about New Orleans’ potentially fatal vulnerability to hurricanes; after the flood I had covered the levee failures and later co-authored a book on the subject. But I said an awful lot about what happened and why back then, and what I might say today isn’t that much different. Meanwhile, though I dearly love New Orleans, I was not there during the storm and flood, nor have I lived there during the past decade. This anniversary belongs to the people of New Orleans first and foremost.

But — you know where this is going, obviously, because you’re reading this rather than nothing — I woke up today and decided, yeah, I do have something to say. I’ll keep it brief.

What Hurricane Katrina, the floodwall and levee collapses, and the aftermath taught me is that America, and its institutions, simply don’t work — and that people like it that way. Perhaps this is a boilerplate observation, so obvious in light of what happened there, and all our other disasters and chronic problems — the Iraq war, political gridlock, gun violence, and a thousand other things. But I believe this is an under-appreciated point. America is an optimistic nation. It has a short memory. Our political system and media don’t really learn very obvious lessons that unspool right in front of everyone’s faces. And so we end up repeating our errors — at least, some of them — to great sorrow. And I expect the sorrow is going to get a lot greater in the coming decades.

In 2001 and 2002, my colleague Mark Schleifstein and I spent a long time examining the growing problems New Orleans faced from hurricanes. The Corps of Engineers, for example, used 1960s and 1970s-era calculations as the basis for their levee designs and these had never been reassessed. It was the 21st century, and their engineers were not even using computer models to measure risk. Meanwhile, the physical pressures on the region were worsening. Louisiana’s coastline was sinking and eroding — removing the natural storm surge buffer between the Gulf of Mexico and a major population center. And there was no real evacuation policy.

Rooftop rescue (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

One thing you learn studying disaster preparation is, it’s resistant to politics and policy. When nothing obviously bad is happening, nobody wants to think about hurricanes, earthquakes, or wildfires — or, in an analogous vein, infrastructure collapses, banking system depredations or data breaches (except those whose job it is). It takes something truly bad happening to get, and to focus, the attention of the people with the power to do something serious about it. By that point, solutions are generally formulated to address the just-past disaster, not the next, worse one. And then, despite the devastation, society as a whole turns its attention elsewhere very fast. All of this is a given. This doesn’t mean we can’t do a good job preparing for, even foiling, disasters — wherever they come from. But it does mean there are significant humps to traverse.

But when Katrina struck, it exposed a kind of institutional rot that went far beyond our warnings. The immediate aftermath is the nightmare everybody remembers, with the White House paralyzed and out of the loop while federal, state, and local agencies tripped over one another. Then, in the days afterward, I remember my growing horror at the emerging evidence that — contrary to the tales spun by Corps officials — floodwalls had simply collapsed long before their maximum tolerances had been reached. The Corps of Engineers (which dates back to George Washington’s army) had made engineering errors that caused the city’s almost-demise. The nation, in the form of the federal government, had a contract to protect New Orleans, and to provide assistance in case of disaster. Sure as any levee, that contract had been breached.

What does that say about a) American technical know-how, which once got us to the moon, built the Interstate Highway System, and destroyed and then rebuilt much of Japan and Europe? Or b) the technocratic systems that we all rely on to protect us, serve our needs, provide a buffer against nature or human capriciousness?

A barge that floated through a levee breach into a backyard (John McQuaid photo)

This should have been a major scandal. But it wasn’t really. Harry Shearer and others have made ample note of this, and of the reasons why. The engineering issues were hard to understand. New Orleans is unique, and weird, and not New York, Washington, or Los Angeles. What are all those people doing living below sea level to begin with?

I’m profoundly tired of thinking about the divide between the civics-textbook American institutions and what we actually have. Because it’s just not clear how much people care whether they work or not. Perhaps this is just how politics operates in a fractious democracy: the degree to which institutions function or fail is often a matter of luck, or transient political circumstances. I admit, my expectations may be too high, or at least they used to be. We’re not Russia, or Guatemala, after all. But we should wonder, with the rapidly-moving new threats we face, from global warming or our own technology, whether we have the tools to anticipate the risks, and prepare for them.

After a catastrophe, you want someone with authority to grasp the overall scope of the problem, find what went wrong, and deal with it. Maybe the President appoints a 9/11-style panel to get to the bottom of what happened, blame some and exonerate others, and recommend fixes. Then Congress and the executive branch can hash out some reforms. But this didn’t happen after Katrina. Instead we got bureaucratic hash: Competing House, Senate, White House, Corps, and independent engineering assessments. Was the problem FEMA? Homeland Security? The Corps? Local levee boards? The President, Governor, or Mayor? Do you have a good sense of this today? Probably not, especially if you haven’t lived it.

One reason for the mush is, “Katrina” (for lack of a better overarching term) was just one hell of a mess, nature playing havoc with faulty man-made systems already on the edge of collapse. But another, probably better reason is, it’s a mess nobody wanted to take, or to assign, responsibility for. As a nation, we moved on — as is our wont — without any serious accounting of what happened, or accountability for it. Just as our pre-Katrina investigation pointed to some serious problems, but only scratched the surface of something rottener, the post-Katrina “process” (or whatever you want to call it) got nowhere near the knotty dysfunction that set us up for disaster. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.

Yes, some things have improved; FEMA is no longer a parking place for the president’s third-tier political supporters. The Corps is using computers. But those were some of the easier fixes. George W. Bush took a major political hit, of course, but that means next to nothing today, other than raised eyebrows when he shows up for the anniversary. The Corps of Engineers admitted, “we made a mistake.” But rather than being forced to endure any serious cross-examination, let alone shakeups or reforms, it was just sent went back to work on the next generation of levees. (Read Mike Grunwald’s tweetstorm on the Corps’ imperviousness to examination or reform.)

(U.S. Coast Guard photo)

I don’t want to belittle or underplay all the good work that so many people have done to rebuild the city, its infrastructure, its houses, its levee system, and the Louisiana marshes. In the days after Katrina, what we have today was almost unimaginable.

But the forces pushing us back toward the edge of various disasters, there and elsewhere, are formidable, and growing. New Orleans is a canary in the coal mine for the 21st century; its anomalous location at or below sea level means it will bear the brunt of rising seas. We ought to be confident it will still be there in 100 years. We are not.

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