World Watch Special Issue, "Katrina: The Failures of Success"

World Watch Special Issue, "Katrina: The Failures of Success"

Washington, DC—"Katrina was much more than a natural event; human hands played a role in the damage and in the storm's equally disastrous aftermath," writes former New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid in the latest issue of World Watch magazine, devoted to unraveling the factors that exacerbated the impact of Hurricane Katrina. The issue also looks at the government's role in disaster mitigation and at the question of whether or not to rebuild a historically vulnerable city.

Among the failures leading up to the storm, government reaction was crippled by misplaced priorities, argue Michael Renner and Zoë Chafe of the Worldwatch Institute, who write that Katrina "revealed the consequences of over-investing in a militarized approach to security while applying a conservative 'starve the beast' ideology hostile to many civilian functions of government."

Louisiana State University geographer Craig E. Colten notes that levees provided the false sense of security that encouraged inappropriate development in the most vulnerable neighborhoods in New Orleans, "conspiring with the drainage works, subsiding soils, public officials, and developers to create a situation exploited by a powerful hurricane."

UK-based journalist Julian Cheatle points out the economic and national security impacts of such failures, particularly their effects on energy and trade. "Katrina hinted at what effect a major disaster…could have when such assets are put at risk." For example, the consumer price index, a measure of inflation, jumped by 1.2 percentage points--the largest one-month increase since 1980--as a result of the gas-price spike.

The threat of escalating damage from such disasters is rising, writes former Worldwatch researcher John Young, thanks to rising seas and warmer waters that may increase the intensity and destructiveness of future storms; both are effects of global climate change. While one study has projected a near-one-meter gradual rise in sea level by the 2080s, a catastrophic scenario, such as the sudden collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, could bring a five- or six-meter increase in sea level within a few decades, reshaping coastlines so radically as to make them unrecognizable.

"Does losing a city teach anything?" asks George Woodwell of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, on the issue of rebuilding the beleaguered city. "We need the delta as a delta, feeding and sustaining the river and the gulf, absorbing nitrogen and sediments form the continent the river drains, stabilizing the coast and the quality of water on it, protecting the region from the inevitable storm surges of the future, maintaining the coastal fisheries, and performing its myriad functions on an Earth we are struggling to keep habitable to humans."

Poet, essayist, and long-time New Orleans resident Andrei Codrescu in contrast argues that the world's greatest cities in theory shouldn't exist--but to be great as a people, we need to grapple with the "impossible and unreasonable."  "As Americans, we needed (and need) to struggle with nature, with the great Mississippi, with injustice, with our own darker impulses, with our need for beauty and peril. We were forged in those tensions," writes Codrescu.

Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson notes in his interview with Worldwatch researcher Erik Assadourian that society as a whole needs to decide whether or not rebuilding will take place in New Orleans, as such social investments are not something the free market system will initiate. "The whole society would have to decide to direct the public part of economic activity into these kinds of projects. But that requires a public that believes in government doing that kind of thing."

According to Eric Mann, civil rights activist and author, Katrina created an opportunity to rebuild New Orleans to redress the inequalities in the city's patterns of housing, education and employment. Prior to Katrina, more than 142,000 people in New Orleans were living in poverty, of whom 84 percent were black. "In New Orleans, 'poor' and 'black' were virtually synonymous," he writes.

Author Mike Tidwell writes that the changing climate that contributed to a meter of relative sea-level rise along the Louisiana Gulf coast during the 20th century is now projected to have the very same impact on every coastline in the world during the 21st century. "If you want to know what all the world's great coastal cities will be fighting against 25 and 50 and 75 years from now, just look at New Orleans today….Our days of running from the problem are simply running out. It's time to stay and finally rescue New Orleans--and ourselves."