Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hurricane Katrina: It's time to change how we deal with disaster

By Nancy Jane Moore

I grew up 35 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico in a little town outside of Houston. Hurricane country. I remember riding out Hurricane Carla in 1961 and getting ready for any number of smaller storms over the years. And I've seen the kind of damage floods can do, even from much less serious storms.

I lived for awhile in Wichita Falls, Texas -- part of that wide swath of the Great Plains known as Tornado Alley. I was there in 1979 for the last really bad one, the mile-wide tornado that took out 20 percent of the housing in town and left all of us without electricity.

I was still there the next year when a heat wave roared across the country -- in Wichita Falls the average high for 45 days in a row was 110.

I've seen the damage caused by earthquakes in Guatemala -- and felt the earth move because the nearby volcanoes were erupting. I've seen deep enough snow in Washington, D.C., to convince me that I don't want to live anywhere likely to suffer a real blizzard.

I have friends who managed to protect their home from the Southern California fires of a few years ago because they spent a lot of money and brainpower designing an effective water system. Most of their neighbors were wiped out.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, earthquakes, volcanoes, heat waves, blizzards -- not to mention fog, high winds, heavy rainfall, drought, dust storms -- all of these things happen all over the Earth on a regular basis. Global warming is already making some of them worse; others have even more obvious human causes.

But even if the human race was doing a superb job of taking care of our planet, we'd still be faced with dangerous and destructive weather. It's a fact of planetary life. And while there's still a lot we can learn, we aren't ignorant about these weather patterns.

We know hurricanes are going to hit the Gulf Coast. We know tornadoes are going to hit the Great Plains. We know volcanoes are going to erupt and tectonic plates are going to shift. We know it's going to snow. We know heat waves happen. We know fires will break out in certain areas.

And yet, we run our lives as if none of these things will happen. We let people build on barrier islands, fill in wetlands, construct inadequate levees, and just hope the hurricane doesn't hit. We put up major cities along active fault lines. We allow too many people to live in an area with too little water. We allow people to farm areas that should never have been tilled. Our plans for excessive cold or hot weather often fail to protect our frailer neighbors.

We can't stop hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes and all the other "acts of God" that hit the Earth each year, but we can start planning our lives as if they were likely to hit. We can do land use planning that protects the natural barriers that protect us -- including prohibiting building in certain areas. We can have adequate evacuation and disaster relief plans in place. We can make sure to allocate appropriate amounts of tax dollars to address disasters of all kinds -- enough money to make it possible for most people to rebuild their lives. We can require certain minimum insurance on homes -- including flood insurance -- the same way we require automobile insurance. We can make sure our infrastructure -- roads, power lines, levees, and the like -- is strong enough to withstand the problems we're most likely to face.

Everyone knew a big hurricane was going to hit New Orleans. A quick look at history suggests the Big Easy is likely to get a bad storm every 30 years or so. Yet the only concession to this were the levees -- levees that weren't built to withstand a significant storm. Nobody prepared, even though everyone knew it was coming.

I, like Diane, remain appalled at the incompetence of the Bush administration. Here we are, a year later, and people are still displaced, still unable to rebuild, still fighting with bureaucracy. Billions have been allocated, but much of the money hasn't been spent -- FEMA can't even get available money to people. A Washington Post report filed from Biloxi, Mississippi, says:

Fewer than 5 percent of the thousands of destroyed homes are being rebuilt, local [Mississippi] officials said. Most of the affected homeowners in Mississippi and Louisiana have yet to see any of the billions in federal money approved to help them get back home.

But the overall problem is bigger than Bush's failures. While it's outrageous that the richest country in the world can't do a better job of picking up the pieces after a disaster, it's equally outrageous that we're not taking the common sense steps to minimize the effects of disasters that are going to happen.

Given how badly we handle predictable disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, is it any wonder that we're at such a loss for handling more random events like pandemics and terrorist attacks?

For a good roundup on the post-Katrina situation, see Tom Paine.com's series called Katrina: The Continuing Storm.

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