Catastrophe in the Making

The engineering of Katrina and the disasters of tomorrow.

Four years ago last month, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on its way to becoming the costliest disaster in U.S. history. The conventional wisdom is that calamities like Katrina are unfortunate yet inescapable, and when Mother Nature wields her awesome power, there’s not much to be done beyond repairing the damage and moving on with life as we know it.

But in the new book “Catastrophe in the Making” (Island Press), authors William R. Freudenburg, Robert Gramling, Shirley Laska and Kai Erikson argue that disasters sometimes result from “humans striking nature”—that is, humans manipulating the natural environment in the name of economic development.

Using New Orleans as a case study, the authors demonstrate how politicians, real estate developers, engineers and speculators transformed the landscape of the city—making it especially vulnerable to a hurricane like Katrina—with predictable results.

The message of “Catastrophe in the Making” is that New Orleans isn’t unique, and that the experience of Katrina should convince us to change our ways … or be prepared to suffer the consequences. In the following excerpt from the book, Freudenburg & Co. examine the lessons of Katrina, and warn that if we fail to heed these lessons, other American cities will inevitably experience comparable destruction, via earthquake, wildfire, hurricane or perhaps even simple rainfall.  
Jason Zasky

The End of an Error?
After Katrina struck, it took weeks for the flood-waters to recede, and far longer for the memories of human misery to do so—if they ever will. From a distance of several years, however, perhaps it is now possible to assess Katrina’s larger lessons.

To paraphrase an observation about the Santa Barbara oil spill by the same Professor Harvey Molotch who first coined the term “Growth Machine,” what Hurricane Katrina sent surging through the levees of Louisiana was more than just contaminated floodwater. Mixed in with all that water and all that contamination was a bit of truth—not just about levees, but about power, about the ways in which unequal power has shaped the world we now inhabit.1

This was not the kind of power that can be seen in marching armies—it was far more subtle, but perhaps for that reason all the more instructive. In retrospect, the power can be seen most clearly in the contrast between claims about prosperity, which were accepted almost without question, versus the warnings about pending danger, which were rejected or ignored.

Even before construction began on the canal that would do so much to endanger the city, experts warned that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) project was ill-advised. Subsequent generations of experts warned that New Orleans was becoming desperately vulnerable. Predictions of danger that were chillingly similar to what came to pass with Katrina were put forth repeatedly—some of them statistical, some of them graphic, some of them, in fact, by one of the authors of this volume. Despite such warnings, however, environmentally damaging projects such as MRGO have continued to be described as necessary “for the good of the economy,” while risks of environmental harm have routinely been dismissed as something “not to be feared.”2

In an earlier time—especially during the nineteenth century, when the promoters were mainly spending their own money—the digging of canals probably did contribute to regional prosperity. By the time the later canals were dug, however, their actual economic benefits were minor or even nonexistent, while their capacity to create environmental damage had increased exponentially. They may have been built in the name of “economic development,” but in fact, they seem to have fit only the definition of economic development once provided by a now-retired colleague, Wilmer MacNair: “A set of policies and practices designed to take money from the bottom 95 percent of the population and redistribute it to the top 5 percent.”3

Given that the decision makers of New Orleans are by no means the only ones to have made such choices, perhaps the first of the broader lessons to be learned from Katrina is that—unless it has somehow been “economically rational” for American taxpayers to shell out more than one and a half million dollars every time a ship made one round trip on MRGO—it is simply no longer reasonable to accept the old assumptions that environmental damage must somehow be good for the economy. Instead, the time has come to recognize that the old approaches were, in effect, a way for Growth Machine proponents to have things both ways, allowing them to enjoy generous taxpayer subsidies for projects they wanted to see, while not needing to pay their share of the cost when their rosy projections proved to be wrong—even spectacularly wrong.

What has actually happened, consistently—in New Orleans, the California Delta, the St. Louis metropolitan region, and elsewhere—is that political and economic systems have worked for the benefit of the few, transferring costs to the many. In New Orleans, in the year of 2004 alone, the taxpayer subsidy amounted to about $10,000 per mile for any of the ships that actually needed all that dredging—and that was before considering all of the earlier “investments,” or for that matter, any of the costs of environmental damage or human suffering. Rather than even approximating genuine “economic development,” this was a process in which a powerful few were able to spread the costs, concentrate the benefits, and hide the risks.

A second lesson involves the fact that, even for the few, the benefits proved to be surprisingly modest. In New Orleans, local Growth Machine interests failed to recognize the implications of historical trends toward ever-larger vessels. This simple failure, coupled with the fact that the period of active lobbying for MRGO stretched over four decades, meant that MRGO was nearly obsolete by the time its backers were able to attend the opening ceremonies. In the St. Louis and California Delta regions, similarly, many of the real-estate speculators who expected to profit from so-called flood-control projects instead went bankrupt, even before the new subdivisions were built, when real-estate markets tanked in 2008.

This pattern, too, proves not to have been limited to New Orleans or the other regions considered in this book. Instead, more broadly, MRGO and other environmentally damaging projects have tended in recent years to involve subsidies not for forward-looking or leading-edge investment opportunities, but for some of the very backwaters of the economy. Perhaps economically vital industries have less need to lobby for huge infusions of taxpayer dollars, but the kinds of “water welfare” that have led to so much suffering and destruction have generally proven to be about as helpful for today’s economy as offering subsidies to the manufacturers of buggy whips.

The third lesson involves a cruel asymmetry. If the economic gains proved to be modest and fleeting, the environmental harms have come to be increasingly massive—and increasingly difficult to control. In previous centuries, enthusiasm for environmentally damaging projects may have been high, but the magnitude of actual environmental damage was constrained by the limits of existing technologies. Projects such as the Carondelet and New Basin Canals, for example, could be filled in when they were no longer useful. Today, even the Corps of Engineers—despite its usual enthusiasm for major engineering projects—considers the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet to be essentially impossible to fill in. More broadly, given the remarkable increases that have taken place in technological capacities, ours may be the first generation to have created a world in which the planet itself could be caught up in new dynamics of damage from which we might find it impossible to recover. To be sure, we have developed an increased ability to foresee potential harm and to detect the early warning signals; there is no evidence, unfortunately, that our ability to foresee harm has kept up with our ability to create it. Instead, our technological capacities have now grown to the point that we can do irreversible harm to the people and places we value, affecting our offspring as well as ourselves.

In the opening pages of this book, we mentioned Kai Erikson’s observations about a kind of technological Peter Principle. The customary meaning of the phrase is drawn from a book by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull—“The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.” With tongue at least partly in cheek, these authors observed that employees in a large organization tend to be promoted when they do their work well, all the way up to the point where they reach the level at which they are no longer competent. At that point, they no longer get promoted, meaning that, “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”4 

Erikson asked whether the same pattern might hold true for technologies—whether we might have “promoted” the societal significance of our technology, up to and perhaps beyond the point where it can actually do what we expect it to do. In this book, we have noted an additional irony within that problem: our capacity to do damage to ourselves and our environment may well have risen faster than our capacity to predict or undo the same forms of damage.5

The challenge we now face—and the obligation we have to the people of New Orleans—is to do a better job of recognizing and dealing with such problems in the future. We need to learn how to see false signals more clearly, and we need to plan for the future more wisely.

For decades, proponents claimed that MRGO would be amazingly busy, but in reality, its main form of effectiveness proved to be in generating hyperbole, not actual commerce. As should be abundantly clear by now, MRGO was not built because it was “needed” by the economy of the United States, or for that matter, by the economy of New Orleans. The reason it was built, instead, seems to have involved a different form of at least apparent irreversibility—a set of political dynamics that, once in motion, led to the unquestioning support of a so-called development project that, in practice, turned out to be an egregious case of water welfare.

The devastating experience of New Orleans teaches us that, particularly when we are dealing with complex natural-and-social systems that we do not yet fully understand, we need to be quicker to question the conviction that a project will be “economically vital,” or that environmental and subsequent human damage are “not to be feared.” We need to build our capacity to recognize the potential significance of the harms, as well as the benefits, that we now have the capacity to bring into being—and we need to do a better job of avoiding the kinds of decisions that may prove impossible to undo.

That is true in all realms of life, but it is particularly true in the world of politics. If the drowning of New Orleans is not a sufficiently clear warning to get us to revise our century-old system of winking at the unwise and damaging distribution of political pork, then the question of what kind of “warning” might be sufficient to prompt that reconsideration is little short of terrifying.

Epilogue: Looking Toward Tomorrow?
Under the circumstances, perhaps it is also time to reconsider our use of the word “disaster.” It comes from dis + astro, or “bad star”—origins that come from astrology, rather than from science, or, for that matter, from any acknowledgment of human responsibility. By contrast, according to Aristotle, a “tragedy” results from a mistake, or more specifically the hubris, of a great or powerful person. In ancient Greece, hubris referred to needlessly causing shame or humiliation—originally, through acts such as mutilating the corpse of a vanquished opponent, or pridefully challenging the gods and the natural order of things. Ultimately, the word has come to include any outrageous act or exhibition of arrogance. Still, even though the kind of damage that MRGO did to the wetlands to the southeast of New Orleans is easy to compare to mutilation—and any number of critics have charged the Corps of Engineers with attempting to “play God”—the metaphor is imperfect. In Aristotle’s “tragic” pattern, the hubris of the great person led ultimately to that person’s own tragic downfall, although such an outcome could also lead to the suffering of others.

By contrast, in post-Katrina New Orleans and many other communities, what appears to be emerging is a modern variation on Aristotle’s vision, or a triple tragedy. First, the hubris of a small number of “great” or at least politically powerful people unleashes serious environmental harm. Second, that environmental harm worsens “natural” hazards, creating damage not just to nature, but also to other humans and to the economy. Third, in what may be the core of this modern pattern of “tragedy,” the consequences will usually be the most severe not for those who have started the cycles of suffering, but for others.

In the end, what has a habit of playing cruel jokes on the poor may not be the pattern that we have come to call “natural” disasters, but the political system that helps to create such disasters in the first place. The outcomes are particularly cruel for those who are least able to protect themselves. Unfortunately, if the ancient Greeks believed that the gods would send punishment to those who most richly deserved it, providing a form of justice, the modern and essentially godless variant is very nearly the opposite of justice. The “punishment” for the hubris of the politically connected few is meted out to the many who are little more than innocent bystanders.

New Orleans proved to be the first major U.S. city during the twenty-first century to experience a truly disastrous hurricane, or for that matter the damage wrought by ill-conceived “economic development” projects, but it will not be the last. Other coastal cities, from Houston to New York, and beyond, could well have later reservations on the hurricane list, and earthquakes or even simple rainstorms could bring a comparable fate to the St. Louis region or the California Delta. The same point applies to the threats that other cities may well soon face from wildfires and rising ocean waters, driven by global climate disruption—or for that matter, to the threats that all of us may increasingly face in a world that we may now be able to impair far beyond our capacity to repair.

In some senses, this lesson was already clear to our grandparents, long ago. They may or may not have had advanced academic degrees, but they knew that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure, or that a stitch in time could save nine. Today, fortunately, at least some professionals offer comparable wisdom, pointing out that investments in environmental protection and in building practices that adapt well to our surroundings can pay major dividends. The National Institute of Building Sciences, for example, has concluded that for every dollar spent on basic mitigation, society saves an average of four dollars—not quite a ratio of one stitch to nine, but a ratio that should be high enough to get the attention of any policy maker who genuinely does care about the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.6

We need to start making those investments. Many of the people of New Orleans who climbed up to their attics to escape the rising floodwaters—only to die as the floodwaters rose still higher, trapping them in terror—had only a few short moments before they met their fates. The rest of us, by contrast, have the time to make informed choices—but only if we begin now, in the relative calm before whatever event may prove to be the next storm. Politicians, of course, mainly receive pressure from politically active interests for making choices that are not nearly so wise, but that does not need to stop the rest of us from working harder to encourage those politicians to make more sensible decisions—and to do so not just in the wake of disaster, but in advance, before the floodwaters come crashing through our damaged systems of defenses.

Even if there is no guarantee that Katrina will be heard as a ringing wake-up call, after all, there is also no guarantee that it will not. The scientific community is not widely known for active involvement in the political process, but wiser approaches to risk management would make rational sense regardless of political perspectives. More broadly, there is no law of nature that prevents us from using the scientific method to do a better job of understanding just how it is that “remarkable” political decisions have been pulled off so effectively in the past—creating profits for a politically connected few, while creating economic as well as environmental harm for the many. And surely, there is also no law of nature that prevents us from seeking more sensible outcomes in the future.

As an initial step toward a better future, then, perhaps the key requirement is that all of us, scientists and citizens alike, need to be less willing to accept the claim that more sensible policy choices are not “politically feasible.” In a political system that can be induced to spend well over a $1.5 million in taxpayer money to simplify one round trip by a single ship, after all, it is clear that the limits of actual political feasibility go far beyond what most of us have ever been able to imagine. It may well be, instead, that the greatest limitations of the past have existed not in the world of politics, but in the boundaries we have drawn around our own imaginations.

The key story of Katrina, to underline the point one last time, is not one of nature striking humans. It is the story about humans striking nature—and then enduring the tragic consequences. The experiences of New Orleans present that pattern in a particularly stark form, but comparable patterns have appeared with increasing regularity across the rest of the map. Now, however, we have the opportunity not just to watch but to influence the frequency with which such unwise courses of action will be followed in the future.

Today, we no longer live in the world that existed before Katrina struck. Instead, we live in a world where it is not just an option, but a duty, to bring to light the kinds of evidence that have too long been overlooked, and to challenge mistaken conclusions. We owe it to ourselves and to our children. We owe it to the memory of those who lost their lives to Katrina. Just as surely, we owe it to the honor of those who fought successfully for their survival—and if we learn from their example, for ours, as well.

Copyright (c) Island Press. Reprinted by permission. 

Endnotes: Chapter Ten (The End of an Error?)
1. Molotch’s original comment was made in the context of another un-natural disaster, namely the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. See Molotch (1970).
2. For an example of early warnings, see Coastal Environments Inc. (1972). For examples of more recent warnings, see Laska (2004 and 2005). For retrospective accounts of the willingness to embrace economic development hopes while ignoring environmental concerns, see Glasser and Grunwald (2005), as well as Brown (2006a and 2006b). For evidence that “megaprojects” tend in general to cost far more and deliver much less than initially promised, see, for example, Flyvberg et al. (2003).
3. MacNair (1999).
4. Peter and Hull (1969).
5. Erikson (1976).
6. National Institute of Building Sciences (2005).