Friday, September 02, 2005

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

As just about everybody with a television now knows, much of the city of New Orleans is desperately flooded in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The flooding commenced with breaks in the levee system holding back Lake Pontchartrain from the below sea level city. The city is being completely evacuated and may not be habitable for months.

Bush administration officials at the highest levels have said that we could not have anticipated a levee break. That is so emphatically not true that I don't believe they really meant to state it in those terms. What they really meant, or at least what they were thinking when they uttered those careless words, was probably more like: We thought the levees would hold, and the city would be ok, as long as we kept our fingers crossed. There was perhaps surprise in some circles when that didn't work.

Truth is, the weakness of the levees protecting New Orleans has been long known, studied, and reported. Nobody should have been surprised when they failed.

Maybe officials meant they'd have expected New Orleans to succumb to the storm surge of a direct hurricane hit, but were caught off guard when instead the city flooded after the hurricane--whose eye was well to the east--had already passed. Maybe they meant they were surprised that the failure came in a canal levee, not one directly exposed to the pounding waves of Lake Pontchartrain. Whatever.

No matter the spin, officials have long known that New Orleans was at great risk, and that it was just a matter of time before risk became reality. In national disaster planning studies, a direct hit on New Orleans by a major storm has long been at or near the top of scenarios for the most devastating national catastrophes.

An article in the New York Times reports that regional officials of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the levee system, have complained for years that the project to bring it up to higher standards has been chronically underfinanced.

Upgrades to the system have been long planned, but there has never been enough money to get the job done. Just as storm experts were predicting a particularly intense hurricane season this year, the New Orleans district of the Corps took a $71 million reduction in its storm protection budget. The Times article states that, since 2001, the Louisiana Congressional delegation has tried to obtain much more storm protection money than the Bush administration has been willing to deliver. Yet another example of your tax cuts at work.

A complete upgrade to protect the city from a Category 5 storm--the most severe--would have cost $2.5 billion. (And by the way, we spend that much in Iraq every two or three weeks.) Now, after the possibility of prevention has passed, the money taps will be opened to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


At Fri Sep 02, 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Peter said...

Did you make a donation to the American Red Cross yet?

At Fri Sep 02, 12:58:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

Yes, and also to the Salvation Army.

At Wed Sep 07, 08:54:00 PM, Anonymous bert said...

I have long paid attention to the potentially dangerous situation New Orleans was in due to a hurricane hit. Now virtually everything the experts have predicted has happened and it appears more awful than anyone imagined.

However, I also wanted to point out that even if the levees had held, those responsible were not prepared to respond to a major hurricane everyone knew was coming.

If you haven't already noticed, Krugman wrote (Sept 2) that this administration isn't very good at the essentials of government. It likes to go to war, but it's not prepared for the aftermath. It likes to talk about Homeland Security but it doesn't spend the money to provide real protection. I'm boggled by your claim that less than one day's fighting in Iraq could have brought New Orleans up to appropriate protection levels - although with mother nature you never know.

The Bush administration is simply slick talking and self serving. Will Katrina expose that? I doubt it.


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