Let's move past all the hindsight
By E. THOMAS McCLANAHAN
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
With diabolical accuracy, Hurricane Katrina targeted New Orleans' greatest vulnerability -- its system of dikes and levees.
Now the recriminations are in full swing. A Washington Post editorial asked how the government "could be so unready for a crisis that was so widely predicted?"
An Associated Press writer wondered why the levees hadn't been strengthened, and lamented that "politicians and the people they lead too often ignore danger signs until a crisis hits." Politicians, he wrote, failed the people: "They didn't strengthen the levees."
True, the initial response was disastrously inadequate. It's hard to understand why critical aid such as food and water wasn't delivered sooner. But on the matter of the levees, much of the commentary has been ill-informed.
Critics have demanded to know why the city was not fully protected. Why didn't we spend what was needed? How could we let this happen?
Some have found fault with White House cuts in a Corps of Engineers budget request for New Orleans flood control. Some commentators have asked how Washington could leave the city vulnerable, as if restoring a $42 million cut would have made a difference.
Sorry, but fully protecting New Orleans before Katrina's arrival would have been impossible, for the simple reason that levees capable of withstanding the storm would take 30 years to build.
Moreover, authorities weren't aware the existing levee system was inadequate until long after it was designed.
Certainly, the inadequacy of the levee system has been well known in recent years, even though efforts to strengthen it have been going on for decades.
Decades, not years
Despite all this prior work, in 2003 a corps official told Greg Brouwer of Civil Engineering Magazine that it would take at least three decades to protect New Orleans from a category 4 or 5 storm.
The problem is that the levees were designed some 40 years ago. At the time, the system was built to withstand what was called a "standard project hurricane" -- what would rank as a Category 3 storm today.
As Brouwer noted, "The design of the original levees ... was based on rudimentary storm modeling that, it is now realized, might underestimate the threat of a potential hurricane." The sophisticated computer-modeling that revealed the weaknesses of the levees came much later.
In other words, to fully protect the city, the funding would have to have been approved and the work begun in 1975.
But attempts by politicians to gain approval for the needed money was complicated by disagreement about how to proceed.
In 2001, an article in Scientific American noted that for at least two decades, Louisiana senators had been pleading for money to protect the city. But experts were divided.
The Corps of Engineers squabbled with academic researchers, who had developed complicated storm-surge models. The corps occasionally portrayed researchers as grant-seekers. The academics complained that the engineers' solution to every problem was bulldozing.
Meanwhile, oystermen and shrimpers were opposed. They worried that the work would destroy their fishing grounds and their livelihood. (Readers can find links to the articles in Civil Engineering Magazine and Scientific American at belmontclub.blogspot.com.)
For now, the primary lesson of Katrina is a familiar one in a country governed by a federal system: Where authority is dispersed among multiple layers of government, our greatest vulnerability is poor coordination -- deciding who should do what.
Given the chaos on display last week, let's pray we don't suffer a major terrorist strike before that lesson is absorbed.
X E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.