When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans with devastating force last week, my first reactions were shock and sorrow.
I spent a wonderful week there covering the 1988 Republican National Convention. Seeing familiar streets submerged, the massive loss of life and the misery of the dispossessed has been horrifying.
Within a few days, shock turned to anger as it became clear that authorities were unprepared for the catastrophe. It’s a cliché that when you fail to plan you are planning to fail. In this case, failure to plan appears to have cost many lives.
My anger has been eased only partially by the belated relief efforts that have finally come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and others. But in recent days it has been joined by yet another emotion -- fear.
My home in South Natomas would be 20 feet under water if the rivers ever overflow the levees here. Yet it’s considered one of the best-protected areas in the Central Valley, thanks to $180 million in fortifications over the last 20 years. It’s hard to take comfort in the assurance that Natomas enjoys 100-year flood protection when New Orleans was supposed to have been much safer, with 250-year protection.
The mixture of anger and fear is a foul brew, but that’s the best way to describe the combination of mindboggling incompetence in the response to Katrina and lack of preparation to prevent similar disasters here.
The Gulf Coast situation has been badly mishandled in more ways than I can list.
President Bush said nobody could have anticipated the failure of the levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans. But in fact, anyone who bothered to look knew that the levees could not withstand storms stronger than category 3. It was only a matter of when, not if, a category 4 storm like Katrina would inundate the city.
In early 2001, FEMA warned that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters facing the U.S. The other two were a terrorist attack in New York and an earthquake in California. (Note to self: review quake safety procedures). In 2002, a five-part series in the New Orleans Times-Picayune described the city’s vulnerability in amazingly prophetic detail.
Not only did federal authorities ignore the obvious warnings, but in recent years they repeatedly cut funding for flood protection and thwarted efforts to prepare for the inevitable disaster.
The Bush administration downgraded FEMA, replaced its director with political cronies, killed a proposed study on how to protect New Orleans from killer storms, and cut federal funding for flood protection in the New Orleans region by more than 44 percent since 2001.
Don’t get me started on how flood protection funds were diverted to finance military misadventures in Iraq, just as National Guard resources meant for domestic disaster response are depleted because they’ve been sent to Iraq via the backdoor draft.
And words fail me in describing how our faith-based administration denies the reality of global warming. Hurricanes are natural disasters that have occurred since the dawn of time, but reality-based scientists say warmer waters provided the fuel that inflated Katrina from a manageable storm to an unstoppable killer.
Looking ahead, my biggest question is whether the Sacramento region will respond to this wake-up call by improving its own flood protection and evacuation procedures.
Last spring the Sacramento Bee described the threat to our region in chilling detail in a series called "Rising Risk." Last June, a levee break in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta caused $75 million damage but could have been much worse.
Despite these warnings, authorities have been slow to act. Much more needs to be done to ensure that Sacramento never faces the sort of devastation that New Orleans has suffered.
In the immediate future, we need to improve our disaster preparedness and complete long-promised improvements to Folsom Dam.
In the long-term, we need to make more far-reaching changes in land-use planning, including reconsidering the wisdom of building millions of homes in harm’s way and expecting man-made dams, levees and pumps to protect them.