After the flood

Katrina taught us a lot about climate change, flood control and disaster management. So why are these lessons still being ignored?

click to enlarge SUBMERGED: Fenceposts in floodwaters in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans 10 days after Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast. - David Rae Morris
David Rae Morris
SUBMERGED: Fenceposts in floodwaters in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans 10 days after Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Katrina's winds shredded through the Gulf South like a giant scythe, but it was the flood in New Orleans that jolted the national psyche, leaving the deepest memory. The flood turned the Big Easy into a disaster zone, planting the image of a Third World backwater. When has the persona of a city been so altered so quickly, or a president so damaged by a single event? TV pictures across the globe showed people trapped on rooftops, sloshing knee-high past bloated corpses and sunken cars, old folk in wheelchairs, women and babies, looters with grocery carts. Most people fled, many staying far away from home for weeks and months. With 80 percent of New Orleans under water, the country that put men on the moon took five days to evacuate hospitals. Four years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the flood exposed an inept emergency response system and swamped the popularity of George W. Bush, leaving in its place an image of detachment and incompetence.

As the media gear up for Katrina anniversary packages, we can expect fresh video of New Orleans's dead neighborhoods, panning abandoned streets and houses still etched with brown waterlines. With only 181,000 of the pre-Katrina population of 463,000 back, the infrastructure is fragile — electricity reaches only 60 percent of the pre-Katrina customer base. The water system needs an estimated $2 billion in repairs. The flood punctured 17,000 leaks in the 136-mile piping system. As a reduced workforce scrambles to repair the worst leaks, the city is losing millions of gallons of water a week, with no rescue package in sight.

Nevertheless, $8 billion in federal funds will soon hit the streets, earmarked for homeowners and businesses that lacked sufficient insurance to rebuild or recoup some of their losses.

There is a shadow-story to this devastation that reaches across the country. In exposing the shoddy system of federal emergency preparedness, the New Orleans flood highlights a far greater crisis: the impact of climate change.

Rising waters

Katrina was a billboard for global warming. Today's congressional majority under Bush scorns the issue, but as the stark footage of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth has revealed, glaciers are crumbling and Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro has lost its cap of snow. As gases from burned fossil fuels accumulate in the atmosphere, a long melt is under way in Greenland, Antarctica and the South Pole. The melted ice causes seas to rise. As seas rise, so do their temperatures rise in hot months. Hotter air and warmer water ignite more powerful storms.

The hottest year on record, 2005, saw the greatest concentration of hurricanes with record winds — Katrina, Rita and Wilma. But the summer of 2006 has brought destruction, too — not from hurricane winds but from historic floods.

"We'd have to go back over three decades to find anything comparable to the flooding we're seeing in the Northeast," a National Weather Service meteorologist named Dennis Feltgen told USA Today in late June. He was referring to the wash of destruction in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia.

In his new book, The Ravaging Tide, Mike Tidwell writes that a rise in sea level of 1 to 3 feet will have an impact on "every inch of American shoreline from the Texas coast to the Florida Keys to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Cape Cod. The low-lying areas of San Diego and San Francisco and much of Puget Sound on the West Coast are at great risk too." He cites an EPA study in saying that "no fewer than one in four U.S. buildings within five hundred feet of a coastline will be destroyed by erosion by mid-century."

click to enlarge PERMANENT SCAR: A young man shows off his new Katrina tattoo last September on Decatur Street in New Orleans. - David Rae Morris
David Rae Morris
PERMANENT SCAR: A young man shows off his new Katrina tattoo last September on Decatur Street in New Orleans.

Flooding is America's most common natural disaster. In the decade before Katrina, flooding caused $7.1 billion in losses to homes and businesses. As the intensity and frequency increase, the average 30-year mortgage has a 26 percent chance of taking damage from rising water, compared to a 4 percent chance of fire. As more people buy flood insurance, the financial pressure on the federal government — which backs flood insurance — will escalate in kind.

"Hurricane Katrina's $23 billion [insurance] hit has triggered a full-blown debate about the federal program that insures property in flood-prone areas," author Neil Peirce wrote recently on "Critics are charging the program's rates are so cheap and its loopholes so broad that it actually puts pressure on local governments to permit new development in extraordinarily flood-prone areas — territory that should never be built on in the first place."

The social Darwinists who control Congress have aped Bush's What-Me-Worry? attitude on the environment. "Defense" has meaning only in a military, not environmental, sense. The planet's revenge doesn't compute. But as scientific data mounts, smarter people are taking a harder, deeper look. "Britain's largest insurance company, CGNU, in 2002 predicted that unchecked global warming could bankrupt the entire global economy by 2065," reports Tidwell. "A key threat highlighted by the insurer was sea-level rise that would directly destroy valuable land, buildings and agricultural assets while indirectly exposing everything farther inland to more intense storms expected in a warmer world."