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5 years after Katrina: Can it happen again?

Posted on: August 30, 2010

In the five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the city has recovered better than many predicted. To paraphrase the great Southern writer William Faulkner, it has not only endured but prevailed.

Katrina cost the city more than half its population; today, it is nearly 80% of its former size. One in 10 residents is a newcomer, including a cadre of well-educated young people. Blight is declining; the middle and upper classes are growing. What was one of the nation’s worst school systems is re-inventing itself. This year’s Super Bowl victory by the once-awful Saints seemed to cap the comeback.

But if a storm like Katrina hit New Orleans today, some of that hard-won progress would be under water. Not the roof-high waters that drowned the city in 2005, but perhaps several feet — enough to do serious damage.

A city sitting in a bowl, with water lapping at its lip, can never be without risk. Nonetheless, as New Orleans residents like to point out, Katrina was as much a man-made disaster as a natural one. Water washed away the foundations of levees poorly designed and constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. It was those breaches that caused so much death and destruction.

The new flood-control system is clearly stronger, but a failure of federal and local leadership at crucial moments has left New Orleans more vulnerable than it should be.

An influential panel of engineers and National Research Council scholars has warned repeatedly that the level of protection Congress ordered is inadequate for a densely populated metropolis. Engineer Robert Bea, who helped investigate why the old levees failed, believes that a storm less intense than Katrina would still cause repeated breaches, as the water found “weak links” in a system composed of new and old pieces.

“Is the city more protected in an honest way than before Katrina? Yes,” says Tulane University environmental expert Mark Davis. “Is it protected as it needs to be? No.”

Of three improvements needed to make the city safer, only one has been addressed, and that one in a flawed way:

•Flood protection. The federal government has rebuilt and upgraded 220 miles of a 350-mile levee system. A navigation channel that aided Katrina’s destructive path is closed. Gargantuan gates have been built to keep out surges. More construction is underway and is scheduled to be completed by June. The system, however, is built only to the 100-year-storm level needed for residents to get federal flood insurance — a level that simply reduces their risk. Given the project’s $14.6 billion price tag, perhaps that’s the best taxpayers can do. But considering that Katrina caused an estimated $135 billion in damages, money spent on prevention is likely to pay for itself many times over.

•Natural barriers. Marshes, swamps and barrier islands off the coast can slow storms. For decades, though, those barriers have been eaten away by neglect, irresponsible political decisions and economic development projects. In 2007, Congress authorized about $1.1 billion to restore the wetlands but has not taken the next step needed to start the work. The state of Louisiana has moved faster, and President Obama seems to recognize the threat. But the clock is ticking. Every year, up to 35 square miles of marshes disappear, making the Gulf Coast more vulnerable.

•Urban planning. City leaders avoided an explosive but essential question in 2006: Should New Orleans recreate all its neighborhoods, or shrink to a safer size, with some of the most flood-prone areas given over to parks or marshes? The latter would have been wiser, but city leaders ducked, and residents rebuilt in areas that won’t be protected by the new levees or can’t be protected at all. Combined with Congress’ foolish decision to provide flood insurance in those areas, too many people are again in harm’s way.

New Orleans residents are rightfully proud of the city’s comeback from the trauma of Katrina. But some of that recovery could be washed away by the next big storm. That would again be a largely man-made disaster — an even more irresponsible one, because lessons of 2005 went unheeded.

Copyright 2010 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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