All political and military might of the world’s major superpower failed before the brutality of the weather. When millions of silent observers across America were watching the devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina, others wondered why someone, at the local, state or national level failed to forecast and prevent the bitter outcome.
Although governmental officials like to repeat that America learns the lessons from the past and reacts adequately, in the light of the tragedy in New Orleans, it is doubtful that any lessons have been learned from floods occurring in 1993, annuals floods in China and Bangladesh, and even recent tsunami disasters in Indonesia, India and Thailand. During September, the world witnessed the ultimate vulnerability of the average American before the flood, and futility of the US government and local authorities to protect their citizens.
In contemporary context, floods represent significantly pressing problem for numerous reasons. Firstly, some of the most extensive, damaging and costly floods have occurred in the most developed and wealthy country as the US: for instance, in 1993 in the Mississippi basin (including its major tributaries, the Missouri and Red River), and in New Orleans in September 2005. While the country has never been exempt from floods, the severity of these disasters seemed to shock not only the victims, but also government, planners and insurers.
It was as if wealth, infrastructure and order were being unfairly challenged by nature, in society that considered itself immune or robust, unlike the less developed countries Secondly, such floods (rightly or wrongly) have become increasingly associated with climate change: the popular and media perception has been of an increased frequency of floods and storms supposedly resulting from global warming. This general outlook has been linked to a more specific belief that the El Nino Southern Oscillation is increasing in frequency and intensity as a part of climate change.
Indeed, such is the popular adoption of El Nino as a climate change phenomenon that it has become a part of television weather forecast in the US in the past ten years. Thirdly, the significant impact of floods on a highly developed country as the US (which often had histories of engineering works intended to prevent floods) meant that a new debate opened up (allied loosely to environmentalism and the Green Movement) which permitted new thinking about the need to allow rivers to run unconstrained by earthworks, embankments, artificial levees, concrete and walls.
Instead, a parallel popular consciousness arose that rivers should be allowed to flow freely in their valleys, enabling the flood plains to be restored to exactly that: flood plains. Despite all this new thinking and increased awareness of floods, we should not lose sight of the fact that floods have long been considered to affect more people and cause more economic losses than any other hazard (although the data often fail to separate out those floods associated with tropical cyclones).
Parker cites data that suggest floods were the most common type of disaster trigger in the second half of the twentieth century (Parker, 5). Prior to devastating flood of September 2005 in Louisiana, the enormous floods in the US countries over the last decade caused relatively few deaths but tens of billions of dollars of damage, much of it uninsured losses. Along with the damage from water itself (and sewage) came health hazards from contamination by chemical leaks, fuel and other pollutants leaking from damaged industrial plants, and enormous amounts of garbage and debris.
These floods had a significant impact on flood policies, not only for China, Bangladesh, etc where season floods are common, but also for the US. In particular, they severely reduced the trust in conventional “engineered” flood control measures. This is evidenced in a commentary on the US floods in Engineering News Record: “In large measure, these increases in flood damages have been self-inflicted. Development of our flood plains has continued as a result of engineering hubris, disaster-denial mentality and a willingness to pursue short-term profit in the face of long-term risk” (Mount, 59).
The collapse of confidence in engineered flood prevention has allowed an increased interest in a ‘living with floods’ approach to emerge, which also recognizes that rivers, their banks and flood plains, provide valuable “ecological services” (which can include the absorption of some flood water). This shift in outlook led to an acceptance of the need to understand the function of rivers and their flow regimes in relation to the wider environment, and a new interest in the idea of returning rivers to their “natural” state.
This approach is coupled with a wider interest in river “restoration”, which (especially in the USA) has led to the dismantling of dams, and the renewal of flood regimes through planned release from dams (e. g. as has happened on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon). Underlying this shift in thinking is a general acceptance that rivers and their floods have considerable benefits that have been lost through damming and flood control.
Although we understand all too well the damage floods do, we have not, until recently, understood very well the many beneficial aspects of flooding. Floods are critical for maintaining and restoring many of the important services provided to humans by riparian ecosystems. Among other things, flooding provides critical habitat for fish, waterfowl and wildlife, and helps maintain high levels of plant and animal diversity. Floodwaters also replenish agricultural soils with nutrients and transport sediment that is necessary to maintain downstream delta and coastal areas.
Indeed, recent attempts in the United States to restore riverine ecosystems have increasingly turned to “managed” floods-the manipulation of water flows from dams and other impoundments-to achieve the benefits of flooding (Haeuber and Michener, 74). These complex ecological relationships are clear in the case of the lower Mississippi. Before elaborate flood control systems were built, the city of New Orleans was partly protected from coastal storms by marshes and barrier islands.
However, after decades of coastal erosion without the replenishment of the silt provided in the past by those floods, the “natural defenses” for the city are disappearing. Given this, Nordheimer in 2002 forecasted that coupled with the low-lying topography of much of the city and its demographic growth, a very large hurricane-flood disaster is possible -one that could kill up to 45,000 people (Nordheimer, D1, D4). The report made by Nordheimer has become bitterly prophetic after three years.
As Tropical Hurricane Katrina was moving on to the Gulf of Mexico, state authorities, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared states of emergency. On August 28, when Katrina reached Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin orders mandatory evacuations (CNN, 2005). From the critical perspective, Nagin’s decision seemed to be late, because some Louisiana’s low-lying areas have been already flooded, and the major highways leading out of New Orleans haven been filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The next day, when Katrina slightly downgraded, things have gone from bad to nightmarish as two major flood-control levees were ruined breached resulting in the massive flooding and “total structural failure. ” The tragedy has been intensified with the fact that more than 100,000 people could not leave New Orleans when mandatory evacuation was announced. The Superdome stadium sheltered tens of thousands while other victims occupied the city’s convention center. Paradoxically, the food and medicine supply had been adjusted only in two days after New Orleans’s shelters started receiving homeless people.
In the interview to CNN, in his commentaries about potential victims, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin indicated, “Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands” (CNN, 2005). Miserable conditions of people in the shelters, in their flooded houses, on roofs and in the backs of trucks were accompanied with massive looting, stealing, rapes and car-jackings on the streets of New Orleans. The ultimate vulnerability of New Orleans to floods and hurricanes has been stressed numerous times by the engineers and construction experts.
For instance, Fred Caver, of the Army Corps of Engineers, emphasized the need for shore defense interventions: “You’re living on borrowed time today. You have until the next big storm zeroes in on coastal Louisiana directly” (Economist, 46). To the present moment, the defensive measures in New Orleans were limited only to levees aimed to protect the city from the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain and not to withstand the pressure of powerful category 5 hurricane.
Moreover, according to engineering experts, New Orleans has too many homes constructed on the Gulf coast in the areas susceptible to flooding without any flood-control systems. From the critical standpoint, the fact that New Orleans is considered to be vulnerable to hurricanes and floods does not explain the late reaction of the US government and agencies on this catastrophe. During the crisis, Ray Nagin has been emphasizing the tragic inefficiency in the actions of government and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): “They’re feeding the people a line of bull, and they are spinning and people are dying…
Get off your asses and let’s do something” (Economist. com, 1). Although these commentaries made during conferences seem to be harsh, they actually correspond to the futile relief strategy employed by the government. Moreover, the flood occurred in the US in September raised doubts about the viability of some flood prevention measures, and it is worth quoting Mount again: “It’s easy, but politically and economically naive, to state that the silver-bullet solution to preventing levee failures is to simply do a better job of design and maintenance.
It’s more difficult to acknowledge the most worrisome aspect of levees: No matter how rigorous the engineering and maintenance, even the best levees will fail occasionally” (Mount, 59). If assessed critically, Hurricane Katrina, most recent tragedy occurred in New Orleans, as well as numerous floods devastated the US for the last decades, outlined the ultimate vulnerability of the US before these natural disasters.
Paradoxically, the poorest groups of New Orleans population became the most vulnerable, depicting another tragic truth of our society – poverty and race are painfully aligned. Paradoxically, George Bush in his speech to the Nation again decorated the meaning of the recent events in New Orleans with the words about the power of American spirit and American state. However, one may wonder why government authorities did not utilize this power in the time of urgent need.