Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina - Calling for Heads on a Platter


Well it has started. Katrina’s level IV winds (actually approaching level V) smashed into the Gulf Coast with hurricane defenses designed for level III storms. So before all the survivors are rescued and the damage assessed people are demanding the heads of those supposedly responsible (that is the heads of their usual opponents) be delivered on a platter.

Actually, while there was more damage than usual because of the stronger than normal hurricane, the relief actions came on rather quickly, except for New Orleans after the levee broke. The flood caused by the levees knocked out major transportation arteries into New Orleans, damaged the emergency communication systems, and destroyed pre-stocked supplies and equipment that the relief agencies would use to recover. It took three or so days to do what would have been done in hours.

Depending on affiliation, there are those who are calling for the heads at the federal level currently controlled by the Republicans, or heads at the state and city levels currently controlled by the Democrats. And who knows maybe some of them did do something malfeasant, but should we call for heads before we really know what failed and why?

New Orleans’ levees were built over the last hundred and fifty or so years. Of course the biggest problem is that the levees were built to withstand a level III storm. Every year at least one level III hurricane hits the US coast. It is easy to convince people that spending money on a threat that happens someplace every year. But level IV and V hurricanes are much more infrequent. My engineer friends point out a rule of thumb that protecting the last 10% of any thing costs at least as much as the first 90%. So when you explain the cost of upgrading the hurricane defenses to level IV, you are talking about an extremely expensive project. In any given city on the coast the probability of a level VI hurricane in the life time of the current inhabitants is minimal. It will happen someplace but it is easy rationalize away the chance that it will happen here. Not that any one is really against upgrading per se, there are just so many other good projects competing for limited funds. Politicians of all stripes prefer projects with a visible payout to their constituencies in a time frame where the voters will connect the benefits with the politician. The price tag, waiting for many years in Congress to fund, to develop the plan to upgrade the New Orleans levees to level IV is eight billion dollars. Every one will have projects that produce more immediate and visible results, so it wasn’t funded.

There certainly needs to be a major review of what happened, what went wrong, and what to do about it. It is possible that it will turn out that current leaders actually did do something malfeasant, but we should wait until the evidence is in. But we should not call for heads of the current leadership to make us feel better, get some political advantage, or deflect ones own responsibilities. The real cause is that the practical consensus of the whole political system was that upgrading the levees would cost more than anyone was willing to spend.

So get the platters and bring on the heads.

Or better yet note the politicians, of both parties, who are calling for heads and on election day hand them their own heads.


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