New Orleans has not fully recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina — and may not for the foreseeable future. The BP oil spill has further complicated the entire northern Gulf of Mexico's recovery. But Katrina left its mark on more than one region. It has shaped an entire's nation's awareness of how to prepare and respond to disaster, including the Deepwater Horizon spill. This weekend marks the fifth anniversary since Katrina devastated a region, a good time to reflect on lessons learned and work to be done:
Katrina cast a sharp light on the incompetence of government at every level, from the federal response under then-President George W. Bush to the chaotic local administration under then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. In Louisiana alone, the storm killed 1,600 people (directly or indirectly) and destroyed or damaged 182,000 homes. Even today, the recovery is slow and halting. More than one-fifth of the city's population, 125,000 people, have not come back.
The challenge in New Orleans is to rebuild not only homes, schools and hospitals, but public faith in government. Residents and businesses will not reinvest in vast tracts of empty neighborhoods until they have the confidence that government institutions — the mayor's office, the police, the school district — are committed to being more responsive and accountable.
Katrina reminds every U.S. city that there is no job development incentive like competent public leadership. Toward that end, the federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars in the years since Katrina to strengthen New Orleans' criminal justice system, improve the schools and modernize disaster preparation efforts. These reforms are vital for repopulating New Orleans and rebuilding the tax base.
Infrastructure isn't sexy but it's vitally important
Katrina caused $41 billion in insured losses and total damages of $81 billion — roughly twice the losses from Hurricane Andrew. It is the costliest hurricane to ever strike the United States. The storm surge was so high — from 10 to 19 feet across New Orleans — that it overwhelmed the city's walls and levees, flooding 80 percent of the city with waters up to 20 feet deep.
The federal government is building New Orleans a new line of defense — a $15 billion, 350-mile ring of levees, walls, gates and pumps designed to protect the city from a once-in-a-century storm. And billions of additional federal dollars, including money from the stimulus package, have been spent or committed to find displaced families permanent housing, to shore up health and education facilities and to restore the barrier islands and coastal marshes, which play a vital role in flood protection.
But the nation has come nowhere close to maintaining its infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the country's five-year needs top $2 trillion. It gave the nation's infrastructure a D grade overall last year and an even lower marks for America's roads, levees, wastewater and inland waterways systems, which all play a roll in containing flooding. As stimulus spending winds down, federal, state and local officials will need a new financing plan to maintain critical public works. As Katrina showed, pay now or pay later.
Coastal living must be managed
A nation that has chosen to build along the coast — much of New Orleans is below sea level — needs to be more responsible about managing the risks. Gulf states need to harden homes in flood zones and restrict development in outlying areas along the coast. The region's congressional representatives should work to establish a national or gulf-area fund to insure against catastrophic risk. And realistic evacuation plans, including transportation for poor residents, is a must.
White House officials have been making rounds in the gulf the last several days to amplify how far federal, state and local responders have come in the last five years. But Katrina was also a brutal reminder that residents must accept individual responsibility for living along the gulf.
Forecasting has come a long way in only the past several years, leaving little excuse for residents to not prepare by stocking up on water, batteries and other essentials during the hurricane season. They need to comply with evacuation orders and be prepared to survive on their own in the immediate aftermath of a storm. The government can do only so much. Residents must attempt not to add to the burden.