The enormous devastation from Hurricane Katrina was not totally unexpected. Studies had warned for years that continued development in floodplains and watersheds and lack of structural and natural protection would put the Gulf Coast states at greater risk of a catastrophic natural disaster.
In 1993 Gerald Galloway headed a White House task force to study the floods that had inundated the American Midwest that year. The report went beyond the $12 billion disaster along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and focused on the vulnerability of people and property in floodplains nationwide.
It outlined the importance of a coordinated response among state, local and federal officials and the private sector, and stressed the need to protect and preserve the environment.
Mr. Galloway -- now a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland -- says less than half of the recommendations were acted upon. "Many of the recommendations went into the 'too hard box' and floated in a bureaucratic malaise over the years until the memory of the flood floated away. " The professor adds, "The half-life of memory of a flood is very short. And even with something as disastrous as the Mississippi or New Orleans flood, it won't be long until people have let it slip off of their radar screens."
Mr. Galloway and his team documented the widespread failure to discourage development in floodplains, provide more protection for existing population centers, and protect critical facilities such as hospitals, water treatment plants and fire stations. The study recommended strengthening levees, floodwalls and dams, and encouraging voluntary measures such as flood proofing and relocating homes and businesses.
Mr. Galloway says it also urged the President to revise the outdated Principles and Guidelines for federal water projects, a 22-year old document signed by President Reagan. "It does not include a focus on the social and environmental costs," he says. "And, if we learned one thing from New Orleans -- and we learned the same thing from the Mississippi flood -- the social costs of such a flood in terms of family disruption, in terms of business collapse is tremendous and our 'Principles and Guidelines' need to reflect that. We recommended that environmental quality (including these social goals) be given co-equal status with national economic development."
The Galloway report recognized the critical need to protect wetlands which harbor fisheries and migratory birds, help contain rainwater and act as a natural barrier against storm surges. Since 1930, development along the Gulf coast has cost Louisiana 49,000 square kilometers of wetland, a loss which continues at the rate of 62 square kilometers per year.
Mark Davis, Executive Director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, says people are at greater risk from extreme weather events when natural protections - like wetlands and barrier islands - are destroyed. He says the payoff for investment in levees and coastline protection is economic resilience.
"We may be beginning to clean up New Orleans and turn on the lights," he says, "but you just have to look at what's happening in Lake Pontchartrain and with the loss of additional storm buffers that it is not just a question of the ecological implications, we now have thousands of fishers and farmers out of work. You are essentially loosing the fabric of communities and an economy, and the ripple effects are not going to stop anytime real soon.
New Orleans is not an isolated case of a city unprepared for disaster. The University of Maryland's Gerald Galloway says some 20,000 communities across the United States are vulnerable including major population centers like, Portland, St. Louis, portions of Seattle, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Memphis, Tucson, Phoenix, Dallas, Sacramento, Baton Rouge, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Orange County, California .
New Orleans is just the latest victim. Professor Galloway says Hurricane Katrina is a wake-up call for the public and private sectors to jointly enact plans that can mitigate the social hardship, environmental damage and economic impact of any future natural disaster.