By now, the world is probably tired of hearing about Hurricane Katrina. But as much as we may want to sweep the mistakes of that tragedy under the rug, we need to examine our errors lest we continue to make them again and again.
That’s the underlying message in "Catastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow" (Island Press, $26.95). The book’s authors take a hard look at the assumption that the disastrous outcome of Hurricane Katrina was caused by nature and therefore couldn’t have been avoided. Just as the levees failed under the powerful winds and rising water of the hurricane, so that assumption fails upon further investigation.
Though Katrina clearly pulled the trigger on the catastrophic events, the authors convincingly make the case that the “Growth Machine,” a mix of ambition and hubris that ignores nature’s laws in a race for short-term profit, was the culprit that loaded the gun for the New Orleans tragedy. Seemingly a never-ending force, the Growth Machine often rears its ugly head in the shape of wasteful pork projects like the infamous MRGO (Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet). The channel constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers destroyed nearly 23,000 acres of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, which once provided New Orleans with crucial shelter and shock absorption from hurricanes.
As the authors explain, “Without the loss of miles of marshes and cypress swamps, the storm surge that hit the city might have been several feet lower, and New Orleans might still be largely intact today. In a very real sense, MRGO proved to be the single cut that led to a thousand deaths.”
Worse yet, the mistakes of Katrina are being mirrored in places like the California Delta, where Growth Machine interests are encouraging new developments on land that falls below sea level and on top of fault lines.
“Millions of us live in places that share vulnerabilities with New Orleans, even if they do not share its music and cuisine and other cultural graces,” write the authors. “In that sense, we are all from New Orleans, and the Katrinas that lurk on the other side of the horizon threaten us all.”
This realization that we are all vulnerable to the effects of crackpot pork projects coupled with the fact that many of these environmentally damaging projects bring little economic benefit, as was the case with the MRGO canal, makes the book worthwhile reading, though it’s dry at times. For example the majority of toxic emissions in the U.S. come from industries that make up only about 4 percent of the economy and support barely 1 percent of the jobs — hardly good enough reasons to trash the environment.
Despite their depressing and often frustrating findings, the authors do offer some hope in avoiding repeating the same mistakes by presenting a handful of simple and often intriguing solutions, such as the basic idea that the full costs of a project, including environmental costs, must be reflected in the price tag before we decide to buy it.
Whether we decide to follow this advice is up to us. But while we’re considering the idea, it’s helpful to keep an old saying in mind: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I say, let’s keep our sanity.
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