01 February 2006

New Orleans: Dark Tide II

I'm sure a lot of people on the list have heard about the 1919 Boston Molasses Flood, but I was reading a book review about the flood by Stephen Puleo, titled, "Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919." And whatever I read in the book's review, the most fascinating thing was that, although the flood that happened almost a century ago, to me, the conclusions drawn by the Boston flood investigation seem pretty darned relevant to Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans.

There's a quote about halfway through this book review that particularly jumped out at me. Judge Wilfred Bolster, in his report on the criminal inquest into the events of January 15, 1919 (which led to the eventual lawsuit against US Industrial Alcohol), "blasted the public for its failure both to adequately fund its city inspection departments and to insist on qualified people to staff them":

"The chief blame rests upon the public itself [ ... ] This single accident has cost more in material damage alone than all the supposed economics in the building department. Laws are cheap of passage, costly of importance. They do not execute themselves. A public which, with one eye on the tax rate, provides itself with an administrative equipment 50 percent qualified, has no right to complain that is does not get a 100 percent product - and so far as it accepts political influence as the equivalent of scientific positions which demand such attainment in a high degree, so long it must expect breakdowns in its machinery."

Why is that interesting to me? And what does that have to do with New Orleans? From the "relevant" link above (which I read a good while back but did not then see the correlations between Katrina and the Boston disaster), this quote jumped out at me:

The problem is the US is full of dozens if not hundreds of such "0.5%" events. Each one, if it happened, would be a monumental loss; each one, taken separately, has a favorable ROI if that event happened. For example, fortifying all of California to handle a Richter 9.0 earthquake. Or even a Richter 8.0. Fortifying the middle of the US to handle a Richter 8.0 if (when) the New Madrid fault lets loose again. Closer to (my) home, fortifying most of the Midwest to better withstand a Category 5 tornado. Fortifying the East Coast to withstand a tsunami of the magnitude of the last Indonesia tsunami. And so on and so on and so on...

But the US can't afford to budget for each and every one of these events. As one pundit reported, politics is the sordid business of, however unfairly, setting priorities with limited funds in a world of unlimited projects. We can't plan and build for every "once in every two centuries (99.5%) events" that might happen anywhere in the US.

Was the Katrina disaster the fault of political bungling, underfunding and public negligence as well? In the end, is the public itself culpable, with FEMA, the Federal and state and local governments serving their intended purpose as scapegoats?


Blogger Lee H. said...

This is an excellent post, man.

I'd say Katrina was more than an 0.5% type of event... people have been saying since I can remember that if the "big one" ever hit (that being a hurricane, not a quake) that the city was screwed. We ran a story on NEXT in 2004 about the projected damages a big storm would inflict- worst case scenario called for the water to be standing in the city for six MONTHS before the levees would be repaired enough for the water to be pumped back out.

The part about the public being to blame, for not wanting to fund projects until it's too late, rings very true though. This is on a whole different scale of seriousness, but think of our local, very Republican "suburb" of Gwinnett county, Georgia.

Huge population growth, plus some of the lowest taxes in the metro Atlanta area. Of course, parents are camping out for 48 hours or more in line to sign their kids up for Little League, because the recreation dept. in Gwinnett is so badly underfunded.

People are so short-sighted when it comes to their money, it seems. They don't want to turn loose of any of it unless there's an IMMEDIATE benefit.

7:38 PM, February 02, 2006  

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