Man and nature

September 04, 2005

KATRINA RANKS as the third-most-intense hurricane in U.S. history. Its storm surge, a wall of water as tall as 29 feet, was the highest ever measured. It hit land with winds of 145 miles per hour. Its damage, though still far from tallied, will make it America's worst national disaster. But it also is a disaster to which man has contributed heavily - and one from which this country must learn.

Waterworld: House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois last week set off a minor tempest with the impolitic suggestion that it might just not make sense to rebuild a city that sits precariously below sea level. We're certain that New Orleans will be rebuilt, but Mr. Hastert's remark underscores that it would be futile to do so without significant federal investment to ensure its separation from the virtually surrounding Gulf of Mexico.

This can be done, albeit with great effort and cost, as evidenced by Holland, much of which also is below sea level and which a few years ago completed more than four decades of work on the Delta Project. The single largest construction project in world history, it was designed to reduce the risk of flooding to once per 10,000 years. Compare that with New Orleans' protection: a system of levees and flood control built on outdated models - a system designed to handle no more than a Category 3 storm (not a big Category 4 such as Katrina), and one for which improvements have been underfunded.

The invisible poor: Poets, musicians and tourists have long reveled in New Orleans' charms. But long before Katrina's devastation, the Big Easy had become one of the poorest, most murderous cities in the country. The French Quarter was one of the nation's top tourist attractions; New Orleans' black neighborhoods - it was almost 70 percent African- American - were little-seen. And as has become all too apparent, they were too little addressed in the mandatory evacuation in advance of the storm.

Many without resources doubtless stayed by choice, maybe even calculating that it was better to be left homeless at home. But officials made few arrangements for the city's more than 100,000 residents without cars, leaving many no choice. The result: a cauldron of desperation - and at times depravity - that has vividly displayed to the world America's burning issues of race and class. Long after the floodwaters have receded, how the rest of this country cares for and perhaps ultimately embraces New Orleans' evacuees is, as U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore put it last week, a "test of our moral compass as a nation."

"Where's the beef?": After 9/11, many Americans - from the White House on down - vowed never again. The Bush administration funneled billions of dollars into the new Department of Homeland Security - both to prevent terrorism and to ramp up this nation's ability to respond to civil emergencies of all kinds. The mass disaster of New Orleans was at the top of planners' list; its risk and scale were thoroughly studied.

But when the city filled with water, precisely as predicted, local authorities were left to cope largely on their own. While Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were vowing aid, the city's mayor was left crying, "Where's the beef?" The National Guard finally stepped up its presence in the stricken city Friday - the fourth day of its submersion.

Somewhere, Osama bin Laden must be smiling - about not just the suffering in this country but also the tardy response from Washington. Would the result be any different if a dirty nuclear bomb were set off in downtown Washington? Or in the event of biological attack on Los Angeles? Americans sitting in the relative comfort of unaffected cities are now left wondering if their areas' critical infrastructure is truly secure, if their patch of the social fabric would tear apart so violently under such extreme duress, and if Washington has the ability to rush to their aid in time.

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