Saturday, 3 September 2005

How on earth could this tragedy happen?

As the sky over downtown New Orleans turns pink in the chemical haze of at least three separate fires (see webcam), and reports from inside the city suggest the worst (some pics here), I offer for your consideration and mine some arguments and thoughts about the New Orleans disaster you may not hear elsewhere, but are worth the pondering. I suspect however that answers to many of the questions we want to ask are beyond the expertise of all of us doing the asking.

Anyway, let me begin with a link to a chillingly prescient National Geographic 'hypothetical' from last year explaining why "the Federal Emergency Management Agency list[ed] a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City... Yet just as the risks of a killer storm are rising, the city's natural defenses are quietly melting away." Read on here.

So, who's to blame for the city's defences melting away? Naturally, Lew Rockwell blames the State. Is he right? I don't know. The State isn't shooting at rescue helicopters or raping people inside the Super Dome, but it was the entity that built and maintained the flood defences.
Mother Nature can be cruel, but even at her worst, she is no match for government. It was the glorified public sector, the one we are always told is protecting us, that is responsible for this. And though our public servants and a sycophantic media will do their darn best to present this calamity as an act of nature, it was not and is not. Katrina came and went with far less damage than anyone expected. It was the failure of the public infrastructure and the response to it that brought down civilization.
Reading further: The city's defences are 'levee-only' says Mark Thornton in a brief summary of the levee system, their history, and some alternatives considered. It was these levees, created by the US Army Corps of Engineers that were breached.
A "levees-only" approach caused sediment to accumulate on the river bottom forcing engineers to regularly raise the level of the levees to hold the same amount of water. The mighty Mississippi River had literally been lifted above ground level in many places. It is obvious that this strategy created the potential for increasingly severe flood damage...The original 7.5 foot levee at Morganza, Louisiana, was able to maintain the Great Flood of 1850 but by the 1920s the levee required a 38-foot height to hold the same amount of water.
But is it even sane to choose to live in a city below sea level on a hurricane coast? And who would choose stay in such a city when a hurricane is heading your way? Justin Darr has some acerbic thoughts on who stayed:

The sad answer is that many of these residents remained because they where waiting for the government to aid them. Many trapped in New Orleans right now are in a state of shock. They expected the nanny state which provides them with housing, medical care, food, and education to also come forward and provide them with the means of escaping a natural disaster. When a state of emergency was declared in August 26th , they waited...The nanny state has created a class of people in America not only unable to take care of their own needs, but incapable of existing within normal society.

Harsh. Perhaps. Mark Steyn puts it with a little more veneer in a lengthy interview here. But the veneer of civilization does appear to have been ripped off, despite the efforts of some people to keep some things going. But why live in a city below sea level that is potentially under water? Might as well ask why live in a city on one of the world's most active faults; or in a city dominated by volcanoes. Or in Holland, much of which is also below sea level and protected by dikes -- earlier versions of which didn't stop the North Sea Flood of 1953.

And the Army Corps of Engineers (if you can believe them after Lew Rockwell's gibes) suggest that "draining the billions of gallons of water that have inundated New Orleans could take three to six months, substantially longer than some experts have expected," leading to speculation that the city may perhaps be abandoned. In any case, it seems certain New Orleans will never be anything like the same again -- perhaps too the questions this disaster raises may themselves prompt further change, and not just in engineering measures.

And while you're thinking about all that, do use this disaster to consider NZ Pundit's advice: Be prepared yourself.


  1. Good summing PC.

    Should like to see more written on what role the State should play mopping up after these people who choose to risk living in a 'volcano'.

  2. A lot of people stay because they want to protect their property, not leave it to be carted off by someone else.You of all people should understand that. The disgusting comment by Justin Darr is typical of his ilk - so busy blaming the state they cannot see the reality.

    Blame government, blame Bush - yeah that's right :-/ Try having a bit of compassion.

  3. " A lot of people stay because they want to protect their property, not leave it to be carted off by someone else." And there's sense in that, of course. No shortage of compassion here. I agree that Darr has rather -- ahem -- overstated his case, but I thought it was rather a useful antidote to those who are complaining that Bush/government etc haven't been more ~forthcoming~.


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