September 02, 2005
Is Katrina a Natural Disaster?
Posted by Victor Fleischer

I just watched President Bush, speaking to reporters, refer several times to the devastation caused by this "natural disaster."  I suspect those words were carefully chosen. 

The real damage in New Orleans is man-made.  The natural disaster part of the story -- the storm surge, rain and wind of the hurricane -- was a near miss.  Were it not for the failure of the levees, the flooding that followed, the inadequate disaster plan, and the lack of supplies, transport, communication, and organized response, my sense is that this would have been a significant but not nearly so tragic storm.  Katrina is a story about the failure of government.  We have had the system of levees, and the vulnerability that comes with it, for a long time.  The risks were known.  We could have and should have been better prepared.  Katrina led to the loss of life, but our own failures led to the loss of many more.

The words matter.  Calling it a "natural disaster" suggests there is little we could have done, as if some unknown and unknowable force struck without warning.  The choice of words reminds me of what I have read and heard about the Buffalo Creek disaster.  After the Buffalo Creek disaster, defense lawyers stressed that the flood was caused by rain.  (According to West Virginia lawyer lore, one lawyer went so far as to insist on calling it the "alleged" flood.)  In any relevant sense, of course, that tragedy was caused by the improper disposal of coal waste, not rain.  Buffalo Creek was a man-made disaster.  So too with Katrina.  Perhaps it is fair to call the devastation in the gulf a natural disaster, but the situation in New Orleans is not.  It is man-made.

I do not say this in order to throw sludge at the president and the federal government.  There is plenty of blame to go around to the state governments, to the culture of corruption in local government, to all of us for tolerating inadquate preparedness.  We should step up the pressure on the government, at all levels, to improve our ability to respond to disasters, whether caused by natural forces, man-made ones, or terrorists.   It is all too easy to imagine the social fabric of Washington DC (or countless other resource-deprived cities) tearing apart in the face of disaster without adequate support from the government. 

The good news is that we are a rich country with smart people, and we can improve our ability to respond in the future.   I hope we do so. 

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