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May. 28 2010 - 2:51 pm | 220 views | 2 recommendations | 5 comments

The National Review and Mother Jones both get Hurricane Katrina wrong

Steel sheet pile pulled from the 17th Street Canal floodwall breach, New Orleans

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has put a renewed media and political focus on the significant government failures of Hurricane Katrina, including the collapsed, flawed floodwalls and levees that put most of New Orleans underwater. There’s also an HBO drama now featuring John Goodman’s impassioned, expletive-laden speeches on that man-made disaster. The New York Times Public Editor recently devoted part of a column to discussing the subject.

But a selective amnesia still dominates for some reason. Take a look at this blogosphere exchange between NRO’s Yuval Levin and MoJo’s Kevin Drum:

Levin says, essentially, Katrina was an act of God for which no government could have been prepared, and, under the circumstances, things weren’t so bad:

I think it’s actually right to say that the BP oil spill is something like Obama’s Katrina, but not in the sense in which most critics seem to mean it.

It’s like Katrina in that many people’s attitudes regarding the response to it reveal completely unreasonable expectations of government. The fact is, accidents (not to mention storms) happen. We can work to prepare for them, we can have various preventive rules and measures in place. We can build the capacity for response and recovery in advance. But these things happen, and sometimes they happen on a scale that is just too great to be easily addressed. It is totally unreasonable to expect the government to be able to easily address them—and the kind of government that would be capable of that is not the kind of government that we should want.

I, and many others, have written on this many times before, but here goes. After Hurricane Betsy flooded parts of New Orleans in 1965, the federal government set out to build a hurricane levee system around the city, its suburbs, and other areas of south Louisiana. The message to inhabitants was: America has an obligation to protect vulnerable areas from catastrophic flooding; now you’ll be safe. But this system was poorly constructed, using out-of-date measurements and technology. And some of its levees and floodwalls were built with flawed designs: they could not do what they were specifically designed to do. During Katrina, those structures prematurely collapsed, opening gashes in the system that let Katrina’s storm surge inundate vast areas. The design flaws, the work of a private firm and approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were responsible for the vast majority of New Orleans flooding during the hurricane.

The notion that “these things happen” and there’s nothing we can do about it beforehand overlooks the history and the facts of the flood. Now, perhaps there is an NRO-friendly argument to be made that, given the scale of the challenge, we never should have undertaken to protect New Orleans from hurricane floods. I don’t agree, but such a point would at least indicate a basic familiarity with the subject matter. Instead, Levin simply treats the disaster as an abstract argument for the pointlessness of emergency preparedness, which is an odd argument indeed.

I expected better from Kevin Drum. But his response also ignores the levees-falling-down issue:

As Levin says, Katrina would have been an immense disaster no matter what. But it was far worse than it had to be because a conservative administration, one that fundamentally disdained the mechanics of government for ideological reasons, decided that FEMA wasn’t very important. Likewise, the BP blowout was made more likely because that same administration decided that government regulation of private industry wasn’t very important and turned the relevant agency into a joke. If you believe that government is the problem, not the solution, and if you actually run the country that way for eight years, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we shouldn’t pretend it’s inevitable.

He’s right that the deliberate weakening of government institutions contributed mightily to both disasters. But it’s just wrong to say Katrina “would have been an immense disaster no matter what.” If some engineer, back in the 1990s, under time, budgetary, or political pressures, had not made the mathematical errors that later caused the walls to fall down, most of New Orleans would have been spared.

I realize levees are a lot less attention-grabbing than “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” – or the exotic mechanics of top kills and junk shots, for that matter. But this is an important issue, a significant failure of American knowhow and accountability that has never really been addressed by the government. That oversight will almost certainly lead to more disasters. It’s essential context for understanding Katrina, emergency management, and government dysfunction in general. Don’t leave it out, blogosphere.


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  1. collapse expand

    Splendid piece by John McQuaid. Every study after Katrina concluded that had the levees held, New Orleans would have had only ‘inconvenient’ flooding – soggy carpets and wet ankles, not death and mayhem. As John said, the levees should have held.

    The levee failures, like the BP disaster, have engineers and lax government oversight at the center of them.

    And both of them have laid waste to a portion of Louisiana’s geography.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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