This is the fourth in a series of five to help the Democratic Party, particularly its presidential hopefuls, to get the framework right, to broaden its lens through which it views Katrina, what’s stopping recovery, what will speed up a vibrant recovery, and how Katrina affords us the opportunity to transform the basic quality of life for all Americans.
Clearly, the Democratic debate on PBS hit a bit of a raw nerve with me. The debate question and candidates’ answers reflected the framework for our national discussion, which has been too narrow, too tiny when discussing who Hurricane Katrina impacted and what the impact was, as well as the solutions offered. So let’s put on a lens through which we can see Katrina’s bigger picture.
First, Hurricane Katrina itself destroyed the Mississippi Gulf Coast. However, the New Orleans disaster was another matter. As so aptly stated on Levees.org, “New Orleans was destroyed primarily by bad engineering and not bad weather.”
Moreover, “[r]esponsibility for the levee failures on August 29, 2005, in New Orleans rests squarely on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and on Congress. This means that the federal government bears primary responsibility for the flooding of metro New Orleans and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes and livelihoods.”
When Hurricane Katrina breached the levees in New Orleans, the floods indiscriminately drenched Republican and Democratic, wealthy, middle class, and low income homes and neighborhoods as well as every ethnic group in this international city. However, had the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carried out its responsibilities, these New Orleans residents would have been spared this horrendous flood. To carry out their responsibilities, of course, requires financial resources as well as solid policy based on sound engineering and environmental principles.
The Washington Post reported
Bush repeatedly requested less money for programs to guard against catastrophic storms in New Orleans than many federal and state officials requested. When disclosures like this came out in Katrina’s immediate aftermath, the Army Corps of Engineers defended the Bush Administration. "It was not a funding issue," said Carol Sanders, the chief spokeswoman for the corps. "It's an issue of the design capabilities of these projects." What a disingenuous though unsurprising answer since the Corps “worked closely with White House officials” on the responses to these tough, important questions regarding the Bush Administration’s responsibility in deliberately cutting the corps’ budget.
The Washington Post article continued.
Local and federal officials have long warned that funding shortages in the New Orleans area would have consequences. They sounded the alarm as recently as last summer [meaning 2005] when they complained that federal budget cuts had stopped major work on New Orleans east bank hurricane levees for the first time in 37 years. Al Naomi, the senior project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, reported at the time that he was getting only half as much money as he needed and that much of the funding was being used to pay contractors for past work.Indeed, if this city had had the kind of protection that the Netherlands has, my family members who live in the Big Easy would have had it easy after the storm. Here are pictures that demonstrate the difference between the levees in New Orleans and those in the Netherlands.
"When levees are below grade, as ours are in many spots right now, they're more vulnerable to waves pouring over them and degrading them," Naomi told the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Walter Maestri, the emergency management chief in Jefferson Parish (county), at the time linked the funding shortfall to the cost of the Iraq war. "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay," he told the newspaper. Maestri added, "For us, this levee is part and parcel of homeland security because it helps protect us 365 days a year."
New Orleans Levees
Photos by National Geographic.
The repaired Industrial Canal levee wall in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward is green with new turf in July 2006 (top). The U.S. government says the city's levees are back at pre-Katrina conditions.A school bus sat stranded near a breach in the same levee on September 12, 2005 (bottom). The embankments were built to endure Category Three storms, yet several crumbled after Katrina's Category Three assault, perhaps as a result of poor design and construction.
Mario Tama / Getty Images file
Workers rebuild the levee along New
Orleans' Industrial Canal in the Lower
Photo Credit: By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post Photo
Ted Sluyter, who organizes school tours of the Dutch sea defense system, says the calamitous 1953 flood bears clear parallels to the New Orleans disaster.
U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) led a 40 member delegation from Louisiana to the Netherlands to tour the world's largest levee system.
"When the unprecedented disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the subsequent levee breaks struck Louisiana, the Netherlands was one of the first nations to come forward to offer their support," Sen. Landrieu said. "The Dutch know all too well the challenges we face, having lived for centuries under the threat from similar vulnerability themselves."Protecting a world class city like New Orleans with a world class levee system like the Dutch have is what we need to do to protect this national treasure. A Netherlands-type of levee system will protect residents, neighborhoods, and businesses in New Orleans. That’s what homeland security is about. It is the smart, savvy, and environmentally sound thing to do. Plenty of good jobs and spin-off business will come from investing in this.
The wider view is that our nation will once again be demonstrating a commitment to investing in the best here at home for our own people, using information rooted in scientific fact.
The wider view still is something I learned from Levees.org. Twenty eight (28) states have at least 120 levees that are vulnerable to the same catastrophic failure New Orleans experienced. One hundred and twenty potential government-created environmental and economic disasters?! Holy Moly!
The spin off benefits of this kind of a levee system will be fantastic. What an awesome boon to our educational system alone with a renewed national commitment to math, science, and technology. Remember the seven-year old African American girl whom I had met at the Bay St. Louis library? She had proudly shared with me that she gets “A’s in math and science!”
With these kinds of projects in 120 areas across the country, little girls and boys in the surrounding areas would grow up with dreams of being engineers and scientists who work at world class facilities just down the street. This is a way we build great communities in which families can live, work, and play generation after generation after generation. What a concept, huh?!
Through the lens of the Katrina travesty, we have learned that we need to reform our national priorities to invest in world class levees in over half the states in our nation. We have also learned of another national problem requiring a national solution. Insurance carriers are jacking up premium costs or not covering homeowners here in Katrina Land . . . and all across the country.
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