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August 28th, 2009
04:38 PM ET

Reckless Neglect: A disaster waiting to happen...again?

Stephen Flynn, Frank J. Cilluffo, and Sharon L. Cardash
AC360° Contributors

Katrina, the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, roared ashore on the Gulf Coast four years ago on August 29, 2005. The images of floating corpses and storm survivors stranded on rooftops and at the Superdome will long be seared in our collective memories. Even today, many families throughout the Gulf region are finding the road to recovery to be a long and arduous one.

For those of us during the late summer of 2005 who were fortunate enough to reside outside of harm’s way, we should pause on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to reflect on this sobering fact: 9 out of 10 Americans live in a place that faces a moderate to high risk of a natural disaster. North America is a beautiful continent, but Mother Nature is not always very kind to it. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, blizzards, and high-wind damage are always in the offing.

While Katrina serves as a forceful reminder of the inevitability of natural disasters, it underscores another important lesson: the risk we will become victims will rise dramatically if we neglect infrastructure. We now know that New Orleans should have survived the storm largely unscathed. The city’s flood protection system was supposed to withstand a direct hit by a powerful Category 3 hurricane. But New Orleans dodged the worst of the storm because at the last minute, Katrina’s center veered east so that the winds that buffeted New Orleans were barely above Category 1. Tragically, because the levees had been so shabbily maintained, they started to fail even before the full fury of the storm had arrived. In the end, it was not an Act of God that doomed so many New Orleanians. It was the neglect of man.

For too long, Americans have been taking for granted the critical infrastructure built by the sweat, ingenuity, and investment of our forebears. From roads and bridges to schools and dams, the foundations upon which are modern lives rely are aging, and not gracefully. For decades, we have been unwilling to invest in caring for the things that assure the safety and quality of our lives. Like the Roman Empire before us, we are beginning to experience the human and economic consequences of recklessly allowing our infrastructure to decay.

But there is a wiser and more responsible way, and we need look no further than America’s heartland to find it. In the spring of 1997, the citizens of Grand Forks, North Dakota had a New Orleans-like experience when the Red River overflowed its banks. The cost of that disaster came to roughly $2 billion. But this past April and May when the Red River crested at an even higher level than it had 12 years before, the city spent only $500,000 dealing with the flood. Indeed, daily life in North Dakota’s third largest city barely missed a beat thanks to an improved flood control system completed in 2007. This investment in resilient infrastructure meant that when Mother Nature did her worst, the city did not break. Instead of becoming victims, many of the residents of Grand Forks even ended up serving as rescuers, assisting smaller communities downriver.

Resilient infrastructure is what Americans should be investing in nationwide. Unfortunately, we may be passing up an historic opportunity for doing so. President Obama has made rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure a centerpiece of his economic stimulus package. But the first priority of his economic team has been to spend money quickly on so-called “shovel-ready projects.” This has translated into passing up the chance of ensuring that new projects are evaluated to determine if they incorporate design features that assure that our critical foundations can survive foreseeable manmade and natural disasters. Future federal spending should correct this oversight and assign the highest priority to projects that will make communities safer in the face of hazards while providing meaningful economic and environmental benefits over the long-term.

In the past, catastrophes have served as a catalyst for changing the way we construct infrastructure. For instance, the great fires in Chicago in 1871, in Boston in 1872, and the earthquake of San Francisco in 1906 prompted the creation of new building codes. The recent experience of Grand Forks suggests we should and can be doing the same today. Moving forward, as infrastructure is repaired, upgraded, and modernized, we should insist that public funds are spent using disaster experiences as a guide.

Four years ago when Hurricane Katrina swept through the region, the Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) was among the casualties when the city’s flood control system failed. Four of SUNO’s eleven academic buildings were damaged beyond repair. A few weeks ago, on August 17, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was at Southern University to announce that funding would at last be provided to replace those buildings. Let us hope that the students who will be educated in those new facilities, as well as in schools and universities around the country, will learn and take to heart the most important lesson that Katrina should have taught all of us. Neglecting the foundations that have made us a resilient society is short-sighted and self-destructive.

Editor's Note: Stephen Flynn is the Ira A. Lipman Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Frank J. Cilluffo is Director of The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI). Sharon L. Cardash is HSPI’s Associate Director.

Program Note: Four years after Katrina, what is New Orleans like now? Some residents continue to face challenges as the Big Easy keeps trying to rebuild. Take a look at In Depth: After the Storm. And to learn about ways you can make a difference, visit Impact Your World.

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. ronvan

    The right word for me is APATHY! All of us felt so bad after Katrina, but now it is a thing of the past. Or is it? So much news coverage right after, t he president & all his "followers" talking the "good fight", promising the world, getting on their planes and leaving. And now 4yrs+ later the people, THE PEOPLE, are still trying to get help to rebuild. Where is all the monies promised? Why is it taking so long?
    And what about the levees? Have they been rebuilt/reinforced? Sadly I understand why it is THE PEOPLE, that was left holding the bag, and they have the desire & guts, not to quit and rebuild themselves.

    August 31, 2009 at 9:54 am |
  2. PJ

    Images of floating corpses...people stranded at the Supedome.... What part of mandatory evacuation lends itself to interpretation? I was down in the lower 9th ward after the storm and saw vehicles much better than the old clunker I drive covered in mud, useless. The owners of those vehicles were at the Superdome or among those rescued from rooftops. I would rather weather a storm like that in the parking lot of a shopping center north of Lake Ponchartrain than in the City of New Orleans. What most people do not recognize is that if it wasn't for the fact that Katrina took a slight jog to the east prior to landfall, there would have been NO survivors in New Orleans (and that includes those in the Superdome.

    August 31, 2009 at 8:39 am |
  3. J.V.Hodgson

    I feel like being a little biblical. The world will be destroyed by earth, wind, fire and water. The power of these elements cannot and will not be controlled by man or engineers. It is and will remain unsustainable for housing 20 feet below sea level not to be flooded in the natural environment in which New Orleans is located.
    It is completely unsustainable to justify housing in such locations, and then expect the rest of US taxpayers to pick up the bill to prevent the non preventable, destoying natural wetlands in so doing.
    My old grandaddy who was a House builder refused to either build or own a house that was not at least 100 feet above a river bank ( or lake) or 1000 yards from a shoreline unless there was a rock cliff over 100 feet high., and even then insisted on a site 100 yards from the edge of the rock cliff. His motto was "I build houses for life times or longer" Mmmmm!!
    Regards,
    Hodgson.

    August 31, 2009 at 12:31 am |
  4. Mona McMahon

    Why is CNN showcasing "Musician's Village" as representative of New Orleans? That bland thing could be in Anywhere, USA. There are other neighborhoods/wards in New Orleans besides the Ninth Ward.

    And many historically/architectually significant buildings and homes rotting because Road Home money isn't enough to fix them. A lot of poor and middle income people don't want to live in a prefab-looking house and they're not comming back to live in one.

    They left those homes, some of which are archtectually unique to the city, to rot. Why doesn't Brad or Cameron or someone adopt one of those buildings and actually "restore" a displaced New Orleanian to his or her actual life nd culture?

    Thanks to James Carville for at least showing one other neighborood.

    August 30, 2009 at 8:22 pm |
  5. Joe in VA

    Why do all reports about "Katrina" start speaking of the hurricane and the Gulf Coast and wind up focusing 100% on New Orleans? I worked in disaster relief in Biloxi and Gulf Port, never any mention today about those folks. Also, why no mention about the Texas gulf coast and the absolute destruction endured near Galveston since Katrina? Maybe of the gulf coats residents and Texans had looted and murdered, they would get more press these days. A day after Katrina I was talking to a civil engineer friend of mine and commenting on the flooding. He said, " You love 15 feet below sea level, what do you expect?" He had a point.

    August 30, 2009 at 7:34 pm |
  6. Joe Rogers

    After spending over 40 years as a civil engineer and having worked with the Corps of Engineers, I can state without reservation that our infrastructure has been in decline for decades. The American Society of Civil Engineers routinely reports on the deterioration of our civil infrastructure and the projected cost of repairs and upgrades are now approach a trillion dollars. It's also time to stop bashing the Corps over New Orleans. The Corps can only build what the Congress will fund and like everything in this country, nothing gets done with funding until we reach a crisis. Also, don't forget that in NO, federal annual maintenance funds for levees were often squandered by locals on other projects.

    August 30, 2009 at 7:24 pm |
  7. Rita Burton

    Look into the asianic conference, and stop ignoring the trust that was entrusted in the Panama Canal. Maybethe world is flat..>

    August 30, 2009 at 6:23 am |
  8. Katy

    I would have to totally agree with Frank.

    August 30, 2009 at 2:08 am |
  9. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    @Sara, it hasn't been one flood, it's been dozens over the last 300 years. Your blog makes my point exactly. The levees have destroyed the natural cycle that deposited river sediment that kept the marshes viable and mitigated storm effects. Levees need to be removed and the natural river flow restored to allow the delta to be built up rather than eroded. The destruction by Katrina gives NOLA a unique opportunity to rebuild that portion of the city that flooded on higher ground. People can choose to rebuild in the same place in the same manner. That doesn't fix the fundamental problem that NOLA is built in a bad location. People want the federal government to rebuild again and again those structures that shouldn't be there in the first place. No thanks, my tax dollars can go to better things.

    August 29, 2009 at 1:41 pm |
  10. Ida Falcon

    I do not understand why the storm Katrina is always discussed and the storm Ike doesn't come up.... Ike was larger, affected more area, and we are still looking for missing people.
    It seems when white working class people are invoived, the news media just doesn't show our strggles and triumphs... Many of these people cleaned, rebuilt, and did not have govt. financial aid, because they have jobs and home insurance. So, they are the wrong color, obviously, and they have jobs, they are not poor, on financial housing and food stamps, and do not live in a govt subsidized home. So, we are not news makers, we are self supporting people who built America. When you turn on the TV today, all you see are people receiving free homes, that the gov't is building, free groc., free electricity.... But, all of this is not free.... It is the people like you and I who work and save and buy our homes, that pay taxes to help those who cannot help themselves..... There is a growing resentment toward people who are life time beggars, leaches on society.

    There are many sitting around, every day with their hand out, for someone to help them.....The Bible says, If you eat, you must work, to harvest what you need............... When is the govt and news media going to see what is going on??

    August 29, 2009 at 10:19 am |
  11. Art

    What Katrina did was awful. Mother nature doing what she wants to do, and she will do it again all over the world. Natural disasters have always been and always will be. What we need to do is get out of the way as much as possible. This planet that we call our home has changed many times in the past and will continue to change in the future, regardless of us. I have never been to New Orleans but I know people who have and say it's a great place. The only complaint I have heard is how hot it can get, but I knew that. I wish New Orleans well and good luck, because some where down the road their going to need some. As a foote note, I think the government response was terrible.

    August 29, 2009 at 6:52 am |
  12. Ron San Bruno, Ca

    One of my biggest concerns stems from the video's I saw in Katrina's aftermath. The stores with bags of garden pestasides open and floating in the water. This was just one store and my first thought was " The Love Canal ". I hope we take this under consideration as well as the future health of New Orlean's .

    August 28, 2009 at 7:11 pm |
  13. Ruth Brewington

    Yes, we are a city that floods. We know that and have dealt with it for years, centuries. We had our wetlands and barrier islands to protect us – to lessen the blow of a hurricane or tropical storm, But our wetlands have been disappearing at an alarming rate. We at a local level have been talking about this for decades, not years. We have already lost over 2100 square miles. How did this happen? Was it people living where they shouldnt be. No it was to help our country enjoy the wealth of our resources. Channels were cut through the wetlands, so that oil could be brought faster to market. A shipping channel to help bring cargo out of the port of New Orleans quicker became the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, one of the main causes of flooding of St. Bernard Parish. Oh, did I mention the tons of sediment from the Mississippi that were dredged to keep the river open? I could say something about Mississippi. All of us who endured KAtrina, know that it was a horrible, horrible storm and wherever it went it caused death and destruction. Even as a category 1 it caused 12 deaths in Florida. For those who say NOLA is twenty feet below sea level. Do you have any idea how high twenty feet is, if not check out the lower 9th ward memorial .....http://www.pbase.com/harrislibrary/image/80035983

    August 28, 2009 at 7:11 pm |
  14. Sara

    - Mike –
    I grew up in New Orleans. It is not fair to ask an entire city to uproot itself because of one flood. The levees there fall under the purview of the Corps of Engineers and have for decades. No one ever suggests that the towns built on the rich soil of the Midwestern flood plain be moved. Or move San Francisco, which is destined to suffer a catastrophic earthquake sooner or later.

    The failure of a few levees is not strictly to blame for the floodwater. The loss of 2,000 square miles of wetlands is also part of the problem. Because we have put up levee after levee, the Mississippi River has been unable to replenish the wetlands as nature intended, by flooding every spring and depositing the silt that built them in the first place. Oil companies were allowed to cut canal after canal after canal through the wetlands, causing an influx of saltwater – deadly to the fresh water marshes. The best known example of this is the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) a 500 foot wide channel cut in 1953. Even back then, environmentalists thought it was a bad idea. Before Katrina, MRGO had grown to 2000 feet wide, and is now over 2500 feet wide. MRGO is seen as a primary reason for the flooding in St. Bernard Parish. It allowed the flood water to flow directly towards people’s homes, instead of being stalled out by the marshes. It has been closed, but the channel is still there while the blasted Corps does a study on how to repair the damage the channel has caused to the surrounding wetlands. It should be complete sometime in the spring of 2011.

    - – Margaret – -
    As much as I love it, the media focuses on New Orleans in part because the photos and footage that we have of those awful days just after the storm are so vivid and haunting. New Orleans was founded in 1718 and has faced flood waters and hurricanes before and surely will again.

    Plaquemines Parish has also been neglected by the media. Much like Camille, the eye of Katrina passed right over the southern edge of this parish. The sturdy brick post office of Buras, LA was ripped apart. Churches and schools flooded. Most homes were destroyed, much like in Gulfport, scoured down to the slabs. Many of these structures were less than 40 years old, having been rebuilt after Camille in 1969. The people of this parish kept FEMA out and took care of their own problems. No one speaks of this place in the media. The focus is strictly on New Orleans. This is not fair to any of the many other areas affected by Katrina. Or to those people whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Rita which followed a short time later.

    August 28, 2009 at 6:36 pm |
  15. Annie Kate

    With the rush to get stimulus money out there and working on infrastructure the government seems to be skipping the step where the situation is evaluated and it is decided whether to fix the old infrastructure or to go with something new and different and more long lasting and safer. I guess the old adage still rings true – there is never time to do it right but always time to do it over. (And at double the price). We need to put some thought into our infrastructure and how it will fit into the future view of our cities and country – give it some forethought before you write that first check. We might just end up with some good infrastructure then, that will stand the test of time.

    August 28, 2009 at 6:26 pm |
  16. Eugenia - San Francisco

    Great Article

    I love the last line:
    Neglecting the foundations that have made us a resilient society is short-sighted and self-destructive.

    could not be more true

    August 28, 2009 at 6:21 pm |
  17. Carol B.

    Although this was a good article, sometimes a look at history points us in the right direction. Family members have a house on one of the levee secured, Lake Stoney Creeks in PA. This is a beautiful, mostly man-made lake region. However, The Great Johnstown flood in the 1880's, which occurred MORE than once, was due to weak levees. It wasn't UNTIL the levees were repaired that the floods stopped. Thousands of people were killed until this happened.Hopefully, the levees will be repaired NOW, or this tragedy will happen again. This is an area that knows tragedy from floods, mine collapses and the 9/11 crash of flight 103. Some preventable, some not.

    August 28, 2009 at 6:09 pm |
  18. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    @Frank, My comment on immigrants was about ILLEGAL immigrants and was relevant to the point in the article about why Rome fell. Any historian will tell you that the roads, bridges, etc. of Rome were fine. In fact, many are still in use after 2000 years! Rome fell from invasion from outside the Empire, through a lack of ability and/or desire to stop 'illegals' from entering. If you want a preview of America, look at the percentage of crime in LA county that is committed by illegals. Look at the diversion of resources. Look at the impact to jobs for US citizens by the 12 million people who come and work illegally here. Want to create 3 million jobs like the stimulus is supposed to do? Throw out 3 million people who hold jobs illegally. True America was built by immigrants, and legal immigration should continue. But we should be bringing in engineers, scientists, craftsmen, and doctors; not people who end up picking lettuce and overwhelming programs designed to help Americans.

    As to the other point, 49% of NOLA is below sea level and is continuing to sink. Previous to the levees, the land was replenished by periodic flooding which built up sediment. The levees now prevent this, so the city sinks lower, requiring bigger and bigger levees over time. This is FACT, not opinion. I quote from a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers written after Katrina: "In the past, flooding and deposition of sediments from the Mississippi River counterbalanced the natural subsidence, leaving southeast Louisiana at or above sea level. However, due to major flood control structures being built upstream on the Mississippi River and levees being built around New Orleans, fresh layers of sediment are not replenishing the ground lost by subsidence." Erosion of the wetlands is a fact too. Google it yourself and see. By the way I have a Masters degree in Civil Engineering, so I know a bit more than you about the dynamics of the situation. By turning those parts of NOLA on the flood plain to a natural state, such as parkland, and rebuilding the destroyed areas, such as the 9th ward, on higher ground, you preserve the culture and save the city a repeat performance. The cost of rebuilding destroyed sections on higher ground is no more than rebuilding on lower ground, and it's 1000% smarter. It removes the need for most levees, which restores the natural flow of the river which then deposits sediment to rebuild the land and wetlands south of the city.

    Next time you want to comment on someone's ignorance, get your own facts in line. True there IS a lack of education in this country.

    August 28, 2009 at 5:32 pm |
  19. Joe G. (Illinois)

    People love New Orleans.. People love New Orleans for what it is; for what it does and for how it does it. Your article makes no sense whatsoever!! It’s like saying that you love Michael Jackson for simply being the person he was “The King of Pop” but then ponder vagrantly about his methodology of life and death! When you break your arm while riding your skateboard that should be a lesson learned.. When you elect Borak Obama despite “Abortion” because you believed he could fix the economy and then find out you lost your soul to the devil for nothing.. That should be a lesson learned. But no.. Not for Americans..

    August 28, 2009 at 5:31 pm |
  20. Frank

    This was a very well written article about our ability to prevent future tragic events through proper infrastructure. The first comment suggested moving the entire historic and culturally rich city of New Orleans to a different location and then suggested that immigrants are going to bring down America (a country formed by immigrants). The next comment suggested the article is about reverse racism! Obviously, it is about infrastructure protecting citizens. Maybe the next article written needs to be about the lack of education and surplus of ignorance and hatred in this country.

    August 28, 2009 at 2:22 pm |
  21. Sylvia

    Maria – if you have this all on tape, they show it. Send it to the media. Dont place your comments on some blog "i have all this on tape, Anderson". Go ahead and come forward. Nice of you to miss the real point of what occurred.

    August 28, 2009 at 1:51 pm |
  22. Margaret Strnad

    You should have done a 2nd part of this story: how much quicker the MS. Coast (where you are from) was able to recover. NOt because they had more money or were given more money than NO; but because of the people. The unbreakable spirit of southern pride. People make so much fun of the south, and this was your chance to help shed a new light on what the south is really like.
    Immediately after the storm, (MS got the direct hit, by the way-everyone seems to think NO did thanks to the media) these people took only at most a half to one day to be shocked and grieve: then they went to work. They didn't wait on anyone else for assistance. People who had nothing were helping those who still had half of a house left, etc... everyone cleaned up their own areas AND any areas they saw that needed to be cleaned up for up to 6 months afterwards.
    These people NEVER stopped. Just like after Camille. It's the people. Funny how people in Mississippi know you have to have good infrastructure, etc. and not blow the $$ on cars, drugs, watches, etc. Mississippi officials also corporate together for the good of the people in the state. It's not about $$$. It's about the state they love and taking care of it and it's people. How come no one ever does a story on THAT????? Gee... it MAY set a good example for others to follow....
    The reason the infrastructure was so bad in NO was b/c for over 30 years $$ from the government was pocketed by the corrupt officials elected to into office in NO. Families got new cars, watches, etc. and the things that needed fixing (levees) never got fixed. We watched it all happen from across the state line. It was all swept under the carpet just as the whole Chappaquiddick incident. He killed a girl he was having an affair with and not only got away with it, became a Senator and is now being hailed the greatest Senator ever. Give me a break. All these problems you spoke of in your report all boil down to $$$ and people in our government who think they are untouchable and can (pardon the pun) get away with murder.

    August 28, 2009 at 1:39 pm |
  23. Maria

    Anderson,What really happened in the Super Dome to European American women?  At Gatwick airport, London , was told by Brits caught inside the Dome that they had to form a circle around their women to protect them from rape by African Americans. Why are you giving such a biased report as if all crimes committed where made by white Americans? Why is CNN turning so anti white American? You should know better what happened, You were there!!! Remember the Rescue helicopters shot at where the pilots made a statements it was like 'Vietnam'??? What gives? You are the one credible reporter we have left beside Lou Dobbs on CNN. I have all this on tape, Anderson. The entire fiasco. Maria

    August 28, 2009 at 12:07 pm |
  24. KIm

    What exactly needs to be done "right now" that hasn't been to make sure it's right ? How much will it cost ?

    August 28, 2009 at 11:58 am |
  25. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    I think you missed the point. Yes the levees failed sooner than tthey should have, but the basic issue here is that the city is nearly 20 feet below sea level in places. It has flooded dozens of times over it's 300+ year history. People point to the Netherlands as an example of what can be done. The situation there is completely different. They are a small country that needs more room, hence reclaiming land from the sea. We however have plenty of room. We just don't seem to be smart enough to build cities above the historic flood plain. Recent floods along the Mississippi have prompted several communities which flooded to move the entire town to higher ground when they rebuilt. Levees ulimately make the effect sof flooding worse. Instead of being able to spread out in the flood plain like nature intended, the water is confined to a narrow channel, increasing both the height of the flood and the velocity of the flow. Both do bad things to structures near by. NOLA missed the opportunity to rebuild the city on higher ground. It will flood again. The coastal marshes are eroding at the rate of a football field each day. Eventually NOLA will not be up river, but in the middle of the Gulf. The lessons learned from Katrina have not really been learned. By the way, there are many reasons offered for the fall of Rome. Decaying inrastucture isn't one of them. The real reason Rome fell is they lost control of their borders, allowing 'peaceful' germanic tribes to settle within the Empire. Eventually these tribes overthrew their 'hosts'. Another lesson we have seemed to not have learned with our uncontrolled illegal immigration.

    August 28, 2009 at 11:41 am |