Once Again, Warnings Were Ignored

As a nation, we are good at post-mortems, analyzing and explaining tragic events — the ’68 riots, the Loma Prieta earthquake, 9/11 — and learning from the results. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demands a commission to answer this question: How did an event that had long been predicted and presumably prepared for turn into the New Orleans catastrophe?

At first it looked like New Orleans had dodged a bullet, with the greatest devastation falling on its hapless neighbors to the east. But then, after Katrina had passed, three levees failed, flooding the downtown, forcing the evacuation of a major city and turning much of its population into homeless, destitute refugees. How could this happen?

It’s not as if the consequences of a levee breach were a surprise. Planners had long said a doomsday storm was a matter of when, not if, and an eerily prescient Times-Picayune story three years ago laid out pretty much what came to pass this week. And charges are coming to light that even though there were known defects in the system, the levees were seriously underfunded. Once the breaks occurred, there seemed no plan of action, with material and equipment in place, to repair them.

Granted that the authorities face formidable obstacles and that the rescue teams have worked with unchallenged heroism, but the federal, state and local response had a piecemeal, ad hoc quality with police and National Guards overwhelmed by such foreseeable events as looting, carjacking and hijacking of relief trucks.

The flooding brought critical relief efforts to a halt _ restoring sewage, water and electricity, bringing in large-scale supplies and evacuating citizens in such overcrowded havens at the Superdome. Maybe no amount of money and advance planning could have saved New Orleans, given its location and the fact of it being lower than the surrounding water level.

And that brings up a final need for a commission. How much of New Orleans will be rebuilt and in what form given the billions involved? It is not in us to give up on a great American city. And New Orleans’ importance as a port and an energy center, not to mention its unique place in our culture and our history, makes that impossible. By the same token, no one wants to go through another Katrina.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)