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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Comments (16)

1. Posted by Eric Goldman on September 2, 2005 @ 21:03 | Permalink

This reminds me a little of earthquakes and California. Build a building on a fault line, and when the earthquake hits, is it a natural disaster? Yes, in that the earthquake is nature's organic processes; no, in that we chose to build buildings on fault lines. In this case, New Orleans is built on a swamp below sea level. This is a human choice that can overcome natural forces for only so long. Eric.

2. Posted by Shag from Brookline on September 3, 2005 @ 6:16 | Permalink

Several months ago, I read a fairly new book on the Slaughterhouse Cases. I was well aware of the criticism regarding the application of the 14th Amendment. But what seemed obvious to me (with the benefit of the authors' 20-20 hindsight background) were the concerns with health issues and the impact upon interstate commerce if there were not appropriate regulation of slaughterhouses along the Mississippi. Property rights were well protected back in those days with strict construction. While I appreciate concern with the meaning of "natural disaster", perhaps man-made can include the Supreme Court and certain of its decisions. And "manifest destiny" was basically man-made. Most of us were not part of the man-made aspects; rather we have been the "beneficiaries" just as with slavery issues. Whether natural or man-made, the role of governments is to take care of "We the People", even if, as politicians are wont to say, "mistakes were made."

3. Posted by Matt Evans on September 3, 2005 @ 7:53 | Permalink

"Katrina is a story about the failure of government."


That is true only if you think the purpose of government is to allow private parties to build on land sandwiched between a huge lake and the ocean, six feet below water level, without internalizing the costs of their protecting their investment. It is not the government's job to facilitate private land developers and owners in their attempts to impose externalities on the general public.

4. Posted by Shag from Brookline on September 3, 2005 @ 8:37 | Permalink

The purpose of government in the Lucas case was not to prevent the landowner from building on a vulnerable sea shore lot (or two) according to the Supreme Court which took the position that this was a regulatory taking requiring just compensation under the 5th-14th Amendments. So if you are prevented from building you can get just compensation from the government (including from a state via the 14th Amendment) but if you are not so prevented, then you should expect nothing by way of right or even compassion when a disaster hits? Consider the contributions made by the City of New Orleans and its residents over the years to the rest of the U.S. And pre-9/11/01 studies identified potential disasters with New Orleans in the # 3 position. New York City was # l. Why wouldn't the argument against New Orleans also have applied to NYC following 9/11/01?

5. Posted by Daniel Chapman on September 3, 2005 @ 10:55 | Permalink

I would say there's a difference because the federal government has an affirmative duty to protect us from attack, but there is no duty to provide emergency relief from "natural disasters" especially when the risks are foolishly ignored.

I'm reminded of the mudslide "victims" in california who tried to sue the state because it didn't build terraces into the hillside after the first mudslide. No mention of the fact that these houses had all been wiped out only a few years earlier, and everyone re-built in the same spot.

Matt Evans: very well said.

6. Posted by Simon on September 3, 2005 @ 11:25 | Permalink

I think that it's very important that you note that this is not exclusively (and, by implication, even primarily) a failure of the federal government. What's bothering me about the tenor of the criticism is twofold: the opportunism of those propagating it (i.e. "hey, here's something else we can bash Bush about") and the mentality of those who buy it (i.e., the "if we don't deal with something at the Federal level, we're not taking it seriously; the Federal government is the only appropriate venue for all disaster planning"). On 9/11, the heavy lifting was done, not so much by FEMA, but by first responders - those magnificent men of the New York Police and Fire Departments. In New Orleans, to go by some news reports, it seems that the first responders are too busy joining in with the looting to be effectively ameliorating the crisis.

I'm not suggesting for an instant that Federal authorities do not have an extremely significant and substantial role to play in managing and resolving this catastrophe, but I do wonder why - which, unless I have missed a considerable amount of news, it seems to be - the majority of the criticism of the handling of the crisis seems directed at the Federal authorities rather than the State, at whose door initial and primary responsibility would seem to lie. If this truly wasa predictable disaster (and it seemed, at the very least, a good bet to happen sooner or later), then why has New Orleans and Louisiana not had adequate first-response crisis management plans in place?

If a vast earthquake hit California tommorow, wouldn't we be a little astonished if the California state authorities had no kind of disaster plan? The Federal government commands more resources than the states, but its focus is far more diffuse; it must attempt to spread its resources to deal with far more problems than any one state will ever deal with. It takes time to bring those resources to focus, and in the mean time, the State must take the lead in dealing with a crisis. New Orleans has not, and nor, it seems, has Louisiana. I also can't help but wonder if the fact that Louisiana's governor and New Orleans' mayor are both Democrats might have anything to do with subtly encouraging the direction of criticism at the Federal authorities.

Criticism of the response is appropriate, but right now, it seems overwhelmingly and cynically being treated as a chance for a partisan attack on the President.

7. Posted by Matt Evans on September 3, 2005 @ 11:59 | Permalink

Daniel and Simon, nice thoughts.

As I read news articles quoting Louisiana officials complaining about $70 million for levee maintenance being cut, it was obvious that the officials didn't really believe maintaining the levees was that important. If maintaining the levees was that important, Louisiana would have paid the $70 million when the feds said no. But maintaining the levees was apparently only important enough to do if someone else paid for it.

8. Posted by Jamison Colburn on September 3, 2005 @ 18:37 | Permalink

My friend Vic Fleisher has hit the nail on the head here. The circumference of federal government responsibility for this unfolding tragedy is all too traceable but also all too easily occluded in a swirl of detail. For decades the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has preempted any local or state involvement in the maintenance of the "Port of New Orleans" (which actually extends from Baton Rouge to NO and includes the dikes and other channeling and works of Lake Pont., etc.), from sediment and wetlands elimination to diking, pumping and everything in between. The Corps has assured state and local people alike that the City was protected from its weather, and the Corps and FEMA both have known for years that funding and maintenance were perilously short. Why do you think all the disaster gaming done at FEMA over the last decade has headlined this scenario? As Vic notes, the only silver lining here (because nobody who actually could have made a difference will really pay) is that this country has many smart people and has in the past learned from its mistakes. I'm writing for next week that we must ask whether we can change the laws on point and change the culture of an organization that never listens to calls to be humbled by "nature." I hope to god we can.

9. Posted by Matt Evans on September 4, 2005 @ 15:21 | Permalink

Jamison, my understanding from news accounts is that Congress turned down a request for $70 million for levee maintenance. No where have I seen that Louisiana or New Orleans thought the maintenance was sufficiently critical that offered to pony up the money themselves. Because of their intimate knowledge of the properties, and their sentimental attachment to the area, the property owners and state officials would be in a much better position than Congress to know whether the maintenance costs are justified. Because they didn't think it was worth $70 million of insurance, it was probably right of Congress to turn down the request. It's not smart to over-insure. (Though of course it's very Huey Longish to try to over-insure your property with someone else's money.)

10. Posted by Rick Mac on September 4, 2005 @ 19:53 | Permalink

I was struck by the very same thoughts as Simon. The order in which we assign responsibility for public order and protection has been inverted. People first look to the federal government to solve the problem, regardless of its nature. In this instance, I do not point this out to highlight the liberal/conservative split. (If there is one. Bush has nationalized public education, traditionally one of the most localized functions.)
Most opinion has not questioned the actions orfailures of NO or state government. Why did these institutions not protect their citizens? State and municipal government is the most reflective of and closest to its citizens and, therefore, should be the most responsive to local need and opinion. These leaders failed to evacuate or notify the citizens of NO that did not have the means to do so on their own.
This does not absolve the Federal government. As Jamison points out, the US assumed a duty to build and maintain the system of levees and canals that protected NO and helped the flow of commerce.

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