Hurricane Katrina that ripped through the Gulf Coast of the United States on August 29, 2005, was one of the most destructive tropical cyclones ever to hit the United States. The exact scale of damage is still being assessed but there is little doubt that the human suffering and the economic damage caused by the storm is colossal.
While people around the world have come to expect wide-scale destruction by natural disasters in third world countries due to their limited resources, the effect of the storm in the most resourceful country of the world left most people stunned. A majority of observers were taken aback at the lack of preparation and the lethargic response of the federal and state government agencies to the crisis. However others, who have followed the systematic erosion of the government's role, cuts in social welfare programs and the intense lobbying for privatization of public services in the name of 'laissez faire' during the last 25 years, are not surprised in the least.
It is not that Hurricane Katrina came without forewarning. New Orleans, a city of half a million people, has for long been considered at risk of a "Big One." Several national newspapers and magazines such as the "New Orleans Times-Picayune" and the "National Geographic" had carried articles in the past warning that a direct hit on the city by a major hurricane was only a matter of time. ("Hurricane Katrina" Wikipedia) Closer to the event, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) issued a warning on August 23 (a full six days before the storm hit the coast) that a tropical depression had formed over southeastern Bahamas; the depression which ultimately developed into the raging Hurricane Katrina by the morning of August 24. By August 26, Katrina had already crossed the category 3 intensity of a major hurricane with sustained wind speeds reaching 175 mph and was headed for the Gulf Coast. Computers tracking Katrina started to predict a direct hit on New Orleans but it was not until a 10 am news conference on August 28 that the city's mayor finally ordered a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. ("The Lost City," 22)
What Went Wrong and Why?
Why Hurricane Katrina caused such extensive damage and whether its effects could have been contained, are questions that must be seriously pondered. To my mind, long-term policy failure and short-term bureaucratic paralysis were largely responsible for the tragedy.
New Orleans, located between the Mississippi River to the south and Lake Pontchartrain to the north, lies mostly below sea level. As such it has often been described as "a saucer waiting to be filled." In order to protect the city from floods, hundreds of miles of levees have been built. However these levees were built on the assumption that they would have between sixty-five and eighty kilometers of protective swamp as buffer between the city and the Gulf. Unfortunately, the government agencies responsible for protecting the wetlands have looked the other way as developers have callously drained thousands of acres of precious wetlands, leaving the city dangerously vulnerable to floods. (Karl, para on "Systematic Failure") To make matters worse, funds for strengthening and raising the levees for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain have been consistently cut by the administration.
The main culprit behind the current government policies that deny such essential funding for public works is the ideology of privatization of government functions introduced in the Reagan-Thatcher era of the 1980s.
More specifically, massive cuts in taxes for the rich and handing out of government functions to private firms at higher rates have dried up funding for state and federal government programs. As a result, only the richest and politically most important states and communities could get the scarce resources available with the government. Terry Lynn Karl, Professor of Economics at Stanford University quotes the example of Florida (with sixteen more electoral votes than Louisiana and where the president's brother governs) receiving its requested funding to protect its wetlands, while a more needy Louisiana had its flood mitigation funds denied in 2004.
As already mentioned, the order for mandatory evacuation of the city on August was made at least two days too late. Predictably, about one-third of the city's population (more than 150,000 people) either chose not to evacuate or simply did…