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2005-09-02

Three thoughts on the New Orleans catastrophe 

To start with, I consider it inappropriate to link this event to global warming. As historical records show, hurricanes in general but also the strongest hurricanes are not on the rise - see the charts by EU Rota, which are based on this table from the National Hurricane Center (via Chrenkoff).

There are however three issues that are important:

  1. It is imaginable how difficult the decisionmaking by the responsible people was during the days before the disaster, under conditions of high uncertainty. Earlier evacuation planning would have helped, but only on Saturday it became clear that a hit on New Orleans was likely. And while scenarios involving overflowing levees were widely considered, nobody believed in the possibility of a breach (according to the NYT).
    "We knew if it was going to be a Category 5, some levees and some flood walls would be overtopped," ... said [Greg Breerwood, deputy district engineer for project management at the Army Corps of Engineer]. "We never did think they would actually be breached." The uncertainty of the storm's course affected Pentagon planning.

    "We did not have precision on where it would make landfall," said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the head of the National Guard Bureau. "It could have been anywhere from Texas all the way over to Florida."
  2. The same NYT-article discusses the lack of consideration given to the evacuation of the poorest inhabitants. This is deeply worrying.
    By Sunday, Katrina had become a Category 5 hurricane, with winds of 175 miles per hour. The president extended the emergency declaration to Mississippi and Alabama. Mayor Nagin, who had urged New Orleans residents to flee on Saturday, ordered a mandatory evacuation.

    It would have been up to local officials, a FEMA spokeswoman said, to hire buses to move people without transportation out of the city. ...

    Brian Wolshon, an engineering professor at Louisiana State University who served as a consultant on the state's evacuation plan, said little attention was paid to moving out New Orleans's "low-mobility" population - the elderly, the infirm and the poor without cars or other means of fleeing the city, about 100,000 people.

    At disaster planning meetings, he said, "the answer was often silence."
  3. This leads me to the third point. If a comparable catastrophe happened in my own city, Vienna, what would be the outcome? Luckily for this town, there is no plausible candidate for a comparable event except unlikely scenarios of a huge earthquake or a nuclear disaster, but I want to abstract away from this fact and the corresponding dearth of systematic preparations. I ask myself this question: would there be civil disorder on a similar scale, armed looters and rapists marauding in the streets?

    Certainly there is no reason to believe in any sense that there would be a higher level of human civility in this place than in New Orleans. Certainly not. Yet, I think there would be less anarchy here. The reason for this assumption is that I do perceive society here to be more equal, more integrative of its weakest members. A negative way of viewing this is the strong reliance of people here on a well-functioning state that cares for them, that solves material problems for them. There is often reason to envy US society for the independence of US citizens from the state, for their self-reliance and resulting entrepreneurialism. This probably contributes to a more dynamic economy, faster economic growth and therefore less unemployment in the United States than in continental Europe. But doesn't it maybe also create large numbers of people at the bottom of the welfare scale who feel disenfranchised by the state, and who have little allegiance to the common good at the political level? Even if a highly liberalised economic system is more efficient than one of the continental European type, is there not in the European model a greater robustness against social desaster at the bottom? If so, I would consider this politically valuable.


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