[Paleopsych] National Journal: Jonathan Rauch: The Loss of New Orleans Wasn't Just A Tragedy. It Was a Plan.
checker at panix.com
Mon Sep 26 23:53:51 UTC 2005
Jonathan Rauch: The Loss of New Orleans Wasn't Just A Tragedy. It Was a Plan.
The National Journal
September 17, 2005
First, the summary from the "Magazine and Journal Reader" feature of the daily
bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.21
A glance at the current issue of the National Journal: The battle
never fought in New Orleans
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, what is most astonishing is that the
plan for a powerful hurricane in New Orleans was "to lose the city,"
writes Jonathan Rauch, a scholar of governance studies at the
"In other words," he says, "if a severe hurricane struck, the city's
flooding and abandonment was not what would happen if the plan failed.
It was the plan."
For years, it was well known that the city's levees could not defend
against a hurricane of Katrina's strength, says Mr. Rauch. Last year,
for example, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that, in the case of such
a storm, "evacuation is the only way to protect New Orleanians."
Despite those warnings, lawmakers continued to sidestep levee
improvement, leaving New Orleans extremely vulnerable to major storms.
Officials figured a storm like Katrina happened only once every two
or three centuries, says Mr. Rauch. The risk of inaction, he writes,
seemed to outweigh the billions of dollars it would cost to improve
the levees adequately. Some estimates put the amount of money saved
because of this decision at as much as $33-billion, he writes.
Characterizations of New Orleans's vulnerability as "tantamount to
negligence" appear justified, he writes. "A far-larger
flood-prevention program should have been under way."
Mr. Rauch calls for a review of America's disaster-preparedness
strategy "no less sweeping than the post-9/11 revision of America's
security strategy." Congress, he says, should establish an independent
disaster-review board to assess vulnerable locations and set
priorities for spending on disaster prevention.
"If there is another New Orleans out there, the public should know
about it," he writes. "Katrina should change American habits of mind
Background articles from The Chronicle:
* Disaster Could Have Been Far Worse, Says Sociologist Who
Thinks New Orleans 'Lucked Out' (9/19/2005)
* Opinion: New Orleans and the Probability Blues (9/14/2005)
* Links to all of The Chronicle's coverage of Hurricane Katrina
and its effect on colleges
E-mail me if you have problems getting the referenced articles.
Even in foresight, it seems justified to call New Orleans's
vulnerability 'tantamount to negligence.'
The evacuation plans were inadequate and then bungled. The rescue was slow,
confused, often nonexistent. Yet the most striking fact of the New Orleans
catastrophe has received less notice than it deserves: The plan for New Orleans
in case of a hit from a very powerful hurricane was to lose the city.
In other words, if a severe hurricane struck, the city's flooding and
abandonment was not what would happen if the plan failed. It was the plan.
New Orleans is built between a lake, a river, and the Gulf of Mexico, and it is
lower than the surrounding waters. It was kept dry by an extensive system of
levees and pumps. That system was itself contributing to the slow subsidence of
The levee system was largely designed in the early 1960s. By the standards of
their day, the levees were built conservatively, but within certain
constraints. In particular, they were built to withstand a Category 3
Hurricanes come in two jumbo sizes: Category 4 and, most severe but rarest,
Category 5. A storm of either magnitude could deliver a surge that would
overtop or breach the levees. The city would be flooded, to depths as great as
20 feet. It would become a lake. Much of it would be destroyed, and many people
All of this was well known. Press accounts and public
officials have been quite open about it for years. "Evacuation
is the only way to protect New Orleanians," reported the
Philadelphia Inquirer last year. It quoted Terry C. Tullier, the
New Orleans director of emergency preparedness, as saying, "It's
only a matter of time." Col. Peter Rowan, the commander of the
New Orleans District of the Army Corps of Engineers, told the
Inquirer that the city was "at the mercy of chance for the
foreseeable future." Media coverage was rife with such warnings.
What could be done? "It's possible to protect New Orleans
from a Category 5 hurricane," Al Naomi, a senior project manager
with the Corps, told the Inquirer. "To do nothing is tantamount
to negligence." In that interview, he estimated that
hurricane-proofing the levees and building floodgates at the
mouth of Lake Pontchartrain might cost $1 billion and take 20
years. In other interviews, Naomi estimated the cost at $2
billion to $2.5 billion and said the project could be completed
in three to five years.
"The point is to eliminate that storm-surge threat with one
of these plans," Naomi told Riverside, a Corps of Engineers
magazine. "The philosophy of what we do during a hurricane would
change. We could spend more time protecting our homes and less
time trying to get out of the city in these desperate
In 1999, reports the Chicago Tribune, Congress authorized
the Army Corps to conduct a $12 million study to determine the
cost of protecting New Orleans. But the study was not set to get
under way until 2006, and it has so far received funding of only
$100,000 to $200,000. "It was not clear why the study has taken
so long to begin," the Tribune reported. Meanwhile, Congress and
the White House consistently and sharply cut requests for
Katrina came ashore as a Category 4 storm. The levees
failed and the city, only partially evacuated, was swamped. "The
intensity of this storm simply exceeded the design capacity of
this levee," Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the commander of the Corps of
Engineers, told reporters on September 2.
Told so barely, the tale suggests shocking imprudence. But
hindsight is 20/20. Remember, the odds of a Category 4 or 5
hurricane hitting New Orleans any given year were small. Strock
told reporters, "We figured we had a 200- or 300-year level of
protection. That means that an event that we were protecting
from might be exceeded every 200 or 300 years. So we had an
assurance that, 99.5 percent, this would be OK. We,
unfortunately, have had that 0.5 percent activity here."
Remember, too, that reinforcing the levees was a
multibillion-dollar project. An ancillary project to restore the
protective marshes of the Mississippi Delta, which would have
reduced the force of storm surges reaching the city, would cost
something like $14 billion over three decades. For that kind of
money, there are always competing priorities, some of them
The question, then, is not whether the failure to improve
New Orleans's flood protection was a mistake in hindsight --
obviously, it was -- but whether it was a reasonable choice in
foresight, based on the probable odds and costs as they appeared
at the time.
Weighing low-probability, high-cost events is, as it
happens, something economists and engineers know a bit about.
W. Kip Viscusi, an economist at Harvard Law School and the
editor of the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, points out that
the Corps of Engineers was among the first to develop and apply
what has become a common cost-benefit template.
Using the more cautious of Strock's figures, assume the
odds are that a storm surge would overtop or breach the existing
New Orleans levees once every 200 years. This seems, if
anything, optimistic, given that Category 4 storms hit the city
in 1915 and 1947; that a Category 5 storm (Camille) narrowly
missed in 1969; and that the devastating Katrina itself was not
a direct hit. Still, assume it. Assume also that officials could
reasonably expect the city's inundation, abandonment, and
partial destruction to cost, ballpark, $200 billion in direct
and indirect economic losses.
In any given year, then, figure that the expected economic
cost of the swamping of New Orleans is $1 billion (divide the
$200 billion cost over 200 years). A $2 billion levee project
could be expected to pay for itself, probabilistically speaking,
in two years; a $14 billion Delta restoration project, in 14
But wait. New Orleans's 200-year flood might take place a
century from now instead of right away (remember, this analysis
is from a pre-Katrina standpoint), and money lost in the future
matters less to us than money lost today. At an interest rate of
3 percent, Viscusi says, the present value of averting $1
billion in expected annual damage forever is $33 billion; at 5
percent, $20 billion; at 10 percent, $10 billion. Any of those
numbers is higher than the estimated cost of hurricane-proofing
the levees, and all but the smallest are higher than restoring
Now, recall that those calculations reflect only tangible
monetary cost. They do not account for inconvenience, pain and
trauma, lives uprooted, and, above all, lives lost. Even a
superbly organized evacuation would leave thousands of people
behind. Moving nursing home patients, emptying hospitals, and
losing control of the streets are dangerous at best. To all of
which, add the psychic and cultural blow of leaving one of the
country's most historic cities an empty ruin.
Strock told reporters that decisions about the levees were
based on "whether it's worth the cost to the benefit, and then
striking the right level of protection." Unless one uses very
optimistic assessments of hurricane odds and economic costs, and
also places a low value on human costs, New Orleans did not
strike the right level of protection. Even in foresight, Naomi's
characterization of New Orleans's vulnerability as "tantamount
to negligence" appears justified. A far larger flood-prevention
program should have been under way.
"This was not a close call," Viscusi says. "It's a
no-brainer that you do this."
The immediate problem is to identify and bury the dead,
tend to the refugees, and decide whether and how to rebuild.
("Whatever rebuilding is done in New Orleans, nothing very fancy
should go there," says Richard A. Posner, a federal appeals
court judge and the author of last year's book Catastrophe: Risk
and Response.) After that should come a revision of America's
disaster strategy no less sweeping than the post-9/11 revision
of America's security strategy.
For example, Congress should create an independent Disaster
Review Board to perform and publish an annual inventory of
catastrophic vulnerabilities, highlighting in red all the places
where, as in New Orleans, more prevention or mitigation makes
sense. The board should prioritize spending and send an overall
disaster budget to Congress every year for an up-or-down vote,
forcing politicians to confront the issue. If population centers
lie over the San Andreas Fault, in the shadow of Mount Rainier
(an active volcano that could devastate the Seattle area), or on
the floodplains of the Mississippi, the disaster board should be
able to propose protecting them, requiring them to protect
themselves, or encouraging them to move.
If there is another New Orleans out there, the public
should know about it and should have to think about it. Katrina
should change American habits of mind forever.
More information about the paleopsych