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Hurricane Katrina in a human security perspective.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a joke circulated to the effect that had the people of New Orleans wanted the federal government to come to their rescue right away, they should have blamed the storm on Al Qaeda.

Sometimes it takes sarcasm to make a point. An administration that has masterfully exploited post-9/11 security fears to justify many of its actions proved itself downright uninterested in undertaking adequate measures to protect the Gulf coast population against the very real threat posed by Hurricane Katrina.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration embraced a muscular security policy with relish--as manifested in its invasion of Iraq and sharply escalating military expenditures. But the administration resolutely turned its back on a broader understanding of security that has slowly gained currency in academic and policymaking circles. It has become quite clear that in many circumstances weapons are simply inappropriate tools. They possess awesome destructive power, but can do little or nothing to protect us from environmental breakdown, rising competition for resources, a resurgence of infectious diseases, growing wealth disparities, and demographic pressures--non-military threats that may be every bit as lethal as the actions of a determined enemy.

Several factors, including ecosystem destruction, population growth, and the economic marginalization of poor people, have in combination set the stage for more frequent and more devastating "unnatural" disasters--natural disturbances made worse by human actions. The number of disasters worldwide has risen from about 750 in 1980-84 to almost 2,000 in 2000-04; the number of people affected has risen from about 500 million to 1.4 billion during the same period of time.

Death and Destruction

The costliest and among the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history (see sidebar, "Bad Company: Katrina versus Other Disasters," right), Hurricane Katrina caused destruction on a scale reminiscent of a marauding force of invaders. More than 1,800 people perished. Along with Hurricane Rita a month later, the storm turned an estimated 750,000 residents of New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf coast into refugees, scattering them not only in surrounding counties and states but also much farther afield.

For many, the prospects for returning home are still uncertain. While the New Orleans levees have been repaired, they are now no more able to handle a storm of Katrina's caliber than they were last year. The overall capability of the city's flood protection system remains suspect. And by designating certain areas of New Orleans as "delayed recovery" and tearing down damaged low-income housing without replacement, post-disaster decisionmaking is placing additional obstacles in the path of many seeking to return (see "Race and the High Ground in New Orleans," p. 40).

A Census Bureau report found that, as of January 2006, Louisiana's hardest hit counties had lost 385,000 people, about 39 percent of its total population (see table, right). Orleans Parish lost 64 percent, while the smaller St. Bernard Parish was almost totally depopulated, losing 95 percent. An estimated 80 percent of New Orleans' pre-storm African-American population was displaced.

The storm also had major impacts on economic security (see "Katrina's National Security Impacts," p. 23). Losses are estimated at a staggering $100 billion or more. The Gulf of Mexico and the coastal area stretching from Texas to Alabama host a dense collection of oil platforms, rigs, pipelines, refineries, and petrochemical plants. Katrina shut down much of the area's oil extraction--which accounts for a quarter of U.S. output--and knocked out about 10 percent of U.S. oil refining capacity. At a time of tight supplies, these effects contributed to the upward pressure on energy prices.

Katrina also highlighted another vulnerability. The Mississippi River, along with the port facilities clustered near New Orleans, serves as a major import and export artery. As George Friedman of the Stratfor consulting firm points out, New Orleans is "where the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk commodities of industrialism come in." Without a navigable river, appropriate shipping and handling facilities, and a safe place for the workforce to live in, this system and a major portion of the U.S. economy are at risk.

These dangers are essentially self-inflicted. It was oil, agriculture, and other commercial interests that turned the Mississippi into an industrial shipping canal, peppered the region with toxic facilities, and destroyed the coastal ecosystems that once provided a measure of protection against hurricanes. This massive human intervention in the regional ecosystem, carried out in pursuit of profits, rendered the region increasingly vulnerable. To be sure, the downside of traditional industrial development has long been felt by the less privileged, even before the 2005 hurricane season. The poorest of the poor have been saddled with dangerous petrochemical plants and toxic waste dumps in Louisiana's notorious "cancer alley." But Katrina also struck at the interests of the rich and powerful.

Eyes Wide Shut

In 2001, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency reportedly determined the three most likely and catastrophic disasters that might confront the United States: a terrorist attack on New York City, a major hurricane striking New Orleans, and a massive earthquake hitting San Francisco. Just as the Bush administration paid no heed to the now-famous warning contained in an August 6, 2001 presidential daily briefing--"Bin Laden prepared to strike in the United States"--the New Orleans warning likewise failed to trigger action.

It was not for lack of information. The government knew that the New Orleans levees could not withstand a hurricane stronger than Category 3. The New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned again in May 2005 that several levees had settled and would soon need to be raised, that an ambitious flood-control study proposed four years earlier had not received funding, and that hurricane storm surges could knock out two of the big pumping stations that are running non-stop to keep the city dry even outside of hurricane season.

Maintaining and strengthening the defenses that New Orleans needs for survival has been shortchanged for several decades. For example, the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, authorized by Congress in 1995 and slated for completion before Katrina struck, remains unfinished. The Lake Pontchartrain Project, intended to protect the city against storm surges in the north from a Category 3 hurricane, was first authorized in 1965 following Hurricane Betsy. But for a host of reasons (including technical questions, environmental concerns, legal challenges, and local opposition to portions of the project), the levees and floodwalls remain partially unfinished. The project has an estimated completion date of 2015.


With the advent of the Bush administration, and particularly after September 11, the neglect worsened. From 2003 on, the invasion and occupation of Iraq absorbed huge amounts of resources, even as tax cuts for the rich caused record federal deficits and made funding for non-military purposes scarce.

According to the Los Angeles Times, since 2001 Louisiana experts and politicians have asked for nearly $500 million in federal money for flood protection. The Bush administration requested only $166 million, though Congress somewhat upped the ante by approving about $250 million. Work on the levees along New Orleans' eastern bank stopped for the first time in nearly four decades. And the Government Accountability Office found that President Bush's budget requests for fiscal years 2005 and 2006 failed to include sufficient funds for new construction under the Lake Pontchartrain Project. Only two months prior to Katrina, the White House again wielded its budget axe, slashing funds for the New Orleans branch of the Corps of Engineers.

Wetlands: Hot Just Swamps

But to focus only on flood control efforts means to lose sight of the larger picture. More than a century of human intervention has led to severe erosion of the wetlands and barrier islands that absorb storm surges and thus offer a degree of protection. As a rule of thumb, a hurricane's storm surge is lowered by about 30 centimeters for every 4 kilometers of buffering wetlands. New Orleans' environmental safety net has been degraded for many decades--a development that could not be turned around within the term of a single administration. In addition to buffering against storms and floods, wetlands are also crucial with regard to commercial fisheries; recreational fishing and hunting; water quality; habitat for endangered and threatened species as well as migratory birds; and ecotourism.

The elaborate system of levees, dams, spillways, and pumps in New Orleans has a certain self-defeating quality. It has allowed the presence of a major metropolis in an otherwise largely uninhabitable area and has kept the city reasonably dry. But by straight-jacketing the Mississippi River, it also prevents the natural flooding on which the area's wetlands and barrier islands depend for replenishing sediments. Without the river's silt (now channeled out into the Gulf of Mexico) the land must subside. Already below sea level, New Orleans has sunk about half a meter in the past 60 years. Nearly 5,000 square kilometers of coastal islands and marshland have vanished in Louisiana since the 1930s. Each year, an additional area of 65-90 square kilometers--about the size of Manhattan--is lost to the sea. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita submerged at least 300 square kilometers of marshland, an area almost twice the size of Washington, D.C., although only time will tell how much has been lost permanently.

These developments are especially worrisome against the specter of climate change, which translates into rising sea levels and more lethal storms. With 28 hurricanes and other named Atlantic storms, the 2005 hurricane season brought the highest number tallied in a single year since record keeping began in the mid- 1800s. Yet in all likelihood it is no more than a preview of future challenges. While there is no scientific consensus yet, recent climate studies by researchers at Purdue University, Pennsylvania State University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provide growing evidence that a rise in ocean surface temperatures resulting from global warming is causing stronger hurricanes (see "Black Water Rising," p. 26).

Like flood control, wetlands protection and restoration have long been underfunded, as the sense of urgency in Washington was simply lacking. But by opposing strong action to stabilize the climate and by abandoning wetland protection policies adopted during the Clinton years, the Bush administration put New Orleans and other coastal communities at greater risk. The Center for American Progress notes that, in a nod to real estate developers, federal agencies have been instructed "to stop protecting as many as 20 million acres of wetlands ... nationwide." As Louisiana wetlands continue to vanish, weaker storms than Katrina could wreak devastation along the coast.

In 1998, Louisiana officials and a number of federal agencies created a consensus restoration plan that became known as "Coast 2050." It envisions the diversion of part of the Mississippi's flow with the help of new pipelines, canals, and pumps, so as to once again deliver large amounts of sediment to the subsiding bayous south of New Orleans. Wetlands and barrier islands would thus be restored over time. Coast 2050 failed to attract funding when it was first proposed, but in the wake of Katrina and Rita, wetlands restoration is seen with new urgency. The plan gained qualified support from the National Academy of Sciences in late 2005 and is backed by a broad range of constituencies that includes environmentalists, fishers, and even the oil and natural gas industry (which, ironically, has contributed heavily to coastal wetlands destruction via the dredging of canals to access drilling rigs).

General, Can You Spare a Few Billion?

Yet the White House and Congress balk at the cost, estimated at $14 billion over a decade or more. The meager $250 million requested by the president in late 2005 to aid restoration efforts after Katrina was subsequently shifted by Congress to other post-hurricane needs. (Interestingly, foreign governments offered $1 billion in aid; see sidebar, "Foreign Aid--From the Receiving End".) In marked contrast, under the two post-Katrina emergency bills approved by Congress, the Pentagon received $1.9 billion for evacuation of personnel, debris removal, and emergency repairs at affected military facilities, and an additional $5.8 billion in a reallocation of existing fiscal year 2006 appropriations. A June 2006 emergency spending bill likewise provided generous funds for the Pentagon ($70 billion out of $95 billion total). Close to $20 billion was allocated to post-Katrina relief and rebuilding, but comparatively meager sums for levees ($3.6 billion) and wetland restoration ($71 million) in Louisiana.

Coast 2050 undoubtedly carries a big price tag. But $14 billion is no more than the Pentagon spends in Iraq during a seven-week period. Costs of the Iraq occupation continue to spiral out of control, having risen from about $50 billion in 2003 to more than $100 billion in 2006, or a cumulative $320 billion (Afghanistan operations have so far cost another $89 billion; see figure).


Though President Bush has characterized the fighting in Iraq as the "central front of the war on terror," the 2003 invasion has in fact opened a Pandora's box of violence and chaos, triggered civil war, and turned Iraq into a potent recruiting ground for extremists. It is difficult to characterize the hundreds of billions of dollars spent as generating tangible "security."

But it's not just a matter of money, As the Center for American Progress has pointed out, members of the National Guard are usually among the first responders when disasters strike. But when Katrina made landfall, many of those individuals were not available. About 35 percent of Louisiana's National Guard has been deployed to Iraq. And dozens of their high-water vehicles, generators, and other pieces of equipment are tied up there as well and thus were not available at a time of extreme need.

Ho Security for the Poor

Disasters, a 2005 Oxfam International report suggests, "are profoundly discriminatory in their impact on people." Economic marginalization meant that the poor among New Orleans' population, nearly all of them African-American, were hit especially hard. Not only did many live in lower-lying neighborhoods more easily prone to flooding, but their poverty meant that they lacked access to vehicles that would have allowed them to flee the city before Katrina hit. Even aside from transportation, they did not have the economic wherewithal to allow them to ride out the storm away from their homes.

The human response to disasters often reinforces inequality. Post-Katrina reconstruction efforts have been biased against the poor, and may ultimately be as destructive to segments of the city as the storm itself. Class and wealth are playing an important role in deciding which parts of New Orleans will be rebuilt and which abandoned. A neighborhood's ability to draw back a "critical mass" of its pre-storm population will be regarded as a key indicator of whether it is to be rebuilt. But the resources available to residents of a poor neighborhood (such as much of the Lower 9th Ward) to entice people back and to act as a community are much more limited than those at the disposal of wealthier communities. The residents of poor neighborhoods also tend to be far more geographically dispersed, and most lack the means to return for planning meetings.

The "Bring New Orleans Back Commission" decided to categorize the northern part of the Lower 9th Ward as "delayed recovery." This means that residents can rebuild only at their own risk, without any guarantee that there will be any basic public services in the near future. Given the lack of critical services such as natural gas and drinkable water in the Lower 9th many months after the disaster, a return there is almost impossible.

Meanwhile, federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson decided in June that more than 5,000 public housing apartments for the poor that were damaged by Katrina are to be demolished. While many of these units were notable for their squalor and crime, the government is not planning to rejuvenate them but to substitute higher-income housing in their place. Some land developers are pushing a plan that, under the guise of abandoning vulnerable settlements, would transform black neighborhoods into parks. Post-Katrina demographic shifts may result in a realignment of political and electoral power (see "Race and the High Ground in New Orleans," p. 40, for a more complete exploration of these issues).

Katrina exposed the underbelly of socioeconomic inequality and poverty that has long characterized American society. More broadly, the storm also revealed the consequences of over-investing in a militarized approach to security while applying a conservative "starve the beast" ideology hostile to many civilian functions of government. This has led to a fateful neglect of critical investments in public infrastructure and services. Katrina showcased that neglect in the most tragic way possible. In the end, Katrina is not just about levees, wetlands, and first responders; it is about what holds a society together in its hour of need. That is the true measure of security.

Michael Renner is senior researcher and director of the Global Security Project at Worldwatch. Zoe Chafe is a Worldwatch staff researcher.

RELATED ARTICLE: Bad Company: Katrina versus Other Disasters

Though Hurricane Katrina will leave shocking images etched in the minds of many Americans--and indeed in the minds of many people around the world--scientifically speaking, Katrina was not the most remarkable storm to hit U.S. coasts. As of the end of the 2005 hurricane season, Katrina ranked sixth among the most intense hurricanes measured in the Atlantic, based on the low central pressure that defines such storms.

The death toll from Hurricane Katrina stands at 1,836, including a number of evacuees who later died of causes related to the hurricane. At least two other windstorms in the United States have caused more deaths than Katrina did. In 1928, a major storm hit Lake Okeechobee, Florida, causing at least 2,500 deaths, and a hurricane striking Galveston, Texas, in 1900 killed 6,000 people.

In 2005, a total of 13,670 people died worldwide because of weather-related disasters, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. On average, 260 million people are affected by such disasters each year worldwide, meaning that they must seek immediate assistance for food, water, shelter, or sanitation.

Nearly every year, flooding kills or significantly affects vast numbers of people. In 1931, the most lethal flood ever recorded killed 3.7 million Chinese, while another in 1998 affected 239 million people.

While hurricanes and other weather-related disasters garner much media attention, they are much easier to predict than major earthquakes. Over the past century, three earthquakes in China alone have each killed more than 10 times the number of people that perished because of Hurricane Katrina. The most lethal earthquake, which hit Tangshan, China, in 1976, killed an estimated 242,000 people. And few can so soon forget the Indian Ocean tsunamis of 2004, which killed approximately 230,000 people in 14 countries.

--Zoe Chafe

RELATED ARTICLE: Foreign Aid-From the Receiving End

Soon after the disturbing images of New Orleans' plight were beamed around the globe, offers of humanitarian aid and assistance began to pour into the United States from private citizens, companies, governments, and international organizations. In all, the U.S. State Department tallied offers of aid from 115 countries and a variety of international or regional organizations. It received $126 million in cash donations from foreign governments and international organizations, with myriad in-kind donations bringing the total foreign aid offered to $1 billion. The single largest donor was the government of the United Arab Emirates, which contributed $100 million for Katrina relief. China and Bahrain each contributed $5 million, with Brunei and Bangladesh also sending $1 million each. Countries still recovering from the 2004 tsunami pledged money and other assistance.

In-kind donations included a 45-vehicle Mexican military convoy equipped with mobile kitchens capable of feeding 7,000 people per day. Canada sent tens of thousands of medical kits, as well as military diving teams. Germany provided 15 high-speed pumps and nearly 100 personnel to run them. NATO planes made 12 flights to deliver 189 tons of supplies.

Not all offers were accepted. The State Department turned down offers from Iran (20 million barrels of crude oil, if trade sanctions were lifted) and Cuba (1,586 doctors) under a blanket policy of rejecting any offers that come with strings attached or violate existing sanctions. After the United Kingdom provided 500,000 food packs, the vast majority of them were recalled by the Food and Drug Administration over fears of mad cow disease.

Several countries chose to donate supplies or money directly to the American Red Cross. Though it is difficult for the Red Cross to track cumulative donations by foreign citizens, several governments made significant contributions. The government of Kuwait gave $25 million, with private donors from the country contributing an additional $2.7 million in one lump sum. Other large government donations to the Red Cross came from Korea ($5.8 million), India ($5 million), and Malaysia ($1 million).

--Zoe Chafe
Estimated Population in Selected Parishes and Counties Before and After
Hurricane Katrina

Parish or Population July 2005-January 2006
County July 1, 2005 January 1, 2006 Absolute Percent

Cameron 9,493 7,532 -1,961 -20.7
Plaquemines 28,282 20,164 -8,118 -28.7
Jefferson 448,578 411,305 -37,273 -8.3
St. Bernard 64,576 3,361 -61,215 -94.8
Orleans 437,186 158,353 -278,833 -63.8
Total 988,115 600,715 -387,400 -39.2

Hancock 46,240 35,129 -11,111 -24.0
Harrison 186,530 155,817 -30,713 -16.5
Total 232,770 190,946 -41,824 -18.0
Grand Total 1,220,885 791,661 -429,224 -35.2

Source: U.S. Census Bureau. "Special Population Estimates for Impacted
Counties in the Gulf Coast Area,"
estimates.html, viewed June 8, 2006.
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Article Details
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Author:Chafe, Zoe
Publication:World Watch
Geographic Code:1U7LA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Previous Article:Katrina's assault on New Orleans.
Next Article:Katrina's national security impacts: a hint of dreadful possibilities.

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