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Nothing natural about Bush's budget cuts
Did this disaster have to happen?

September 9, 2005 | Page 6

NICOLE COLSON reports on the years of government neglect and inaction that left New Orleans vulnerable to catastrophe.

THERE WAS nothing "natural" about the devastating losses suffered by New Orleans' residents following Hurricane Katrina.

Despite the severity of the storm, in the end, it wasn't the massive force of the hurricane that turned New Orleans into a wasteland. It was the flooding that followed a full day after the storm struck that did the most damage--as New Orleans' levee system failed to protect the below-sea-level city.

George W. Bush claimed that nobody expected New Orleans' levees to give way, and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff told reporters: "That 'perfect storm' of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody's foresight."

But according to the Times-Picayune, Dr. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, said that Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials--including Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and FEMA Director Michael Brown--had listened in on briefings given by his staff before the hurricane hit. "We were briefing them way before landfall," Mayfield said. "It's not like this was a surprise. We had in the advisories that the levee could be topped."

Federal officials did next to nothing to prepare for a large-scale evacuation, leaving tens of thousands of poor, mostly Black residents to the mercy of the storm. But FEMA's Michael Brown nevertheless blamed the death toll--now projected to reach as high as 10,000--on residents who "didn't heed the advance warnings [to evacuate].

Scientists--even officials in the Bush administration--have been warning for years about the possibility of a hurricane causing destruction of this magnitude in New Orleans and surrounding areas.

In 2001, for example, the Houston Chronicle quoted FEMA on the three most likely disasters to threaten the U.S. One was a Category 4 or 5 storm hitting New Orleans. "The New Orleans hurricane scenario may be the deadliest of all," wrote the Chronicle.

Its summary of the warning was eerily accurate. "In the face of an approaching storm, scientists say, the city's less-than-adequate evacuation routes would strand 250,000 people or more, and probably kill one of 10 left behind as the city drowned under 20 feet (6m) of water," the Chronicle wrote. "Thousands of refugees could land in Houston."

Part of the potential for the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina comes from the geography of the city. Set in what is essentially a "bowl," nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level--more than eight feet below in places. During rains, a pump system in the city pushes water uphill into Lake Pontchartrain, but this in turn draws more water of out the ground, causing even more sinkage.

That's why the levees built to protect the city from the Mississippi River to its south and Lake Pontchartrain to the north are so vitally important. Yet the Bush administration repeatedly cut the budget for improvements to the levees.

Rapacious development has also played a role, eroding natural marshlands that could slow surging floods by acting as natural "shock absorbers" for storms. Every two miles of marsh between New Orleans and the Gulf reduces a storm surge (the height of storm waves threatening to break over levees) by half a foot.

According to National Geographic, Louisiana loses about 25 square miles of land each year--the equivalent of about one football field every 15 minutes--through erosion caused not only by an inadequate levee system (which prevents sediment from flowing back down into rivers and lakes), but also by thousands of miles of canals cut for ship traffic and one of the most extensive oil exploration operations in the U.S.

Meanwhile, though scientists are still debating exactly how global warming has an impact, some are convinced that climate changes caused by pollution have led to increased severity of storms like Hurricane Katrina.

In a recent study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology climatologist Kerry Emanuel reported that major storms in both the Atlantic and Pacific have increased in duration and intensity by about 50 percent since the 1970s--the result, in part, of increases in average ocean surface temperatures and atmospheric temperatures. And as sea levels continue to rise due to the melting of polar ice caps, low-lying coastal areas like New Orleans, are at greater risk.

"When you look at the broadest perspective, short-term advantages can be gained by exploiting the environment," Louisiana coastal engineer Joe Suhayda told National Geographic last year. "But in the long term you're going to pay for it. Just like you can spend three days drinking in New Orleans and it'll be fun. But sooner or later you're going to pay."

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