NOLA: The blame game

+ More

The left-wing blogs and hurricane experts like Sidney Blumenthal in the Guardian are blaming George W. Bush and his administration for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I don't want to spend much time on this now, while the city is still underwater, but it's worth taking a look, as this Chicago Tribune article does, at what the federal government has done. Money quote:

In a telephone interview with reporters, corps officials said that although portions of the flood-protection levees remain incomplete, the levees near Lake Pontchartrain that gave way–inundating much of the city–were completed and in good condition before the hurricane.However, they noted that the levees were designed for a Category 3 hurricane and couldn't handle the ferocious winds and raging waters from Hurricane Katrina, which was a Category 4 storm when it hit the coastline. The decision to build levees for a Category 3 hurricane was made decades ago based on a cost-benefit analysis."I don't see that the level of funding was really a contributing factor in this case," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the corps. "Had this project been fully complete, it is my opinion that based on the intensity of this storm that the flooding of the business district and the French Quarter would have still taken place."

They planned for a Category 3 hurricane, but New Orleans got a Category 4. With the advantage of hindsight, we can ask why they didn't plan for a Category 4–or Category 5. It surely would have been much more expensive, and there is always the possibility of the kind of adverse unexpected consequences that actually occurred: If you build strong levees, they will tend to keep water out, but if one fails they will tend to keep water in. Category 4 hurricanes are very rare, and successive federal, state, and local governments of different parties decided not to engineer New Orleans for one. But maybe they were wrong, and New Orleans should have been and should be engineered to withstand one.

In assessing what should have been done and what should be done now about New Orleans's below-sea-level vulnerability, someone should take a look at another example of below-sea-level vulnerability, the Netherlands. After catastrophic floods caused by North Sea storms in 1953, the Netherlands built a flood control system that has proved successful ever since. One of the most advanced economies, and one of the world's most tolerant polities, has been maintained in a country where much of the land is below sea level.