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Katrina + 1: Are we rebuilding in harm's way?

POSTED 24 AUGUST 2006

A year after the Gulf Coast catastrophe
Mississippi's coast is struggling to rebuild, with exciting plans for on-shore gambling palaces to replace the floating casinos that loosed their moorings in Hurricane Katrina. Metropolitan New Orleans is just plain struggling. Yellow-bottomed sailboat rests on top of house with gray roofAccording to the Earth Policy Institute, the city's pre-Katrina population of 463,000 has shrunk to 214,000, meaning that Katrina has caused a record crop of environmental refugees.

No flying saucer: Post-Katrina, this New Orleans house was crowned by a sailboat. Photo: Dustin Anderson

The return to New Orleans has "slowed to barely a trickle," says the Times-Picayune newspaper, as one-time residents await firm word on when, whether, and where to rebuild their lives.

Some parts of New Orleans may be too far below sea level for safe rebuilding, especially if the population does not return to pre-Katrina levels, and extra-especially if indolence, sloth and stupidity continue to hamper repair of levees and restoration of the wetlands that historically protected against hurricane storm surges. Katrina, after all, was not the "perfect storm" in New Orleans, and yet catastrophic levee failures drowned 80 percent of the city.

Graph shows that property near the US coasts will continue to increase in value.
Even if property values jump just 0.5 percent per year, a surge in coastal building will leave still more real estate at the mercy of hurricanes. Data from Insurance Information Institute

Questions about the wisdom of building in the path of hurricanes have obvious relevance along the Gulf, but inland river valleys also get floods, and the insurance costs of storms and other natural disasters are soaring. Private insurers have long since quit covering floods, preferring to insure against the far less expensive dangers of fire and wind. That leaves the flood insurance "business" to the National Flood Insurance Program. But that program is more than $20 billion in the hole. So far, NFIP has forked over more than $16 billion for the floods of 2005, mainly caused by Katrina.

Arrows point to places along coast that are in danger of being washed awaySouth Bethany, Delaware stands to lose three rows of houses in the next 60 years, due to the rise of sea level associated with global warming. Should zoning authorities and federal authorities take rising seas into account when deciding where to build along the coast? Courtesy Evan Mills, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Many factors are fueling the mushrooming costs of flood-related natural disasters. Seas are rising. Many climatologists think hurricanes are getting stronger, and even those who disagree do agree that the natural hurricane cycle has turned to strong, frequent hurricanes in the Atlantic. In July, a group of weather scientists decried the "lemming-like" act of building in the path of hurricanes. The group included Kerry Emanuel of MIT, who first measured a connection between global warming and hurricane intensity, and Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center. They said the scientific debate about the relationship between global warming and 'canes "should in no event detract from the main hurricane problem facing the United States: the ever-growing concentration of population and wealth in vulnerable coastal regions. These demographic trends are setting us up for rapidly increasing human and economic losses from hurricane disasters, especially in this era of heightened activity."

Graph shows dramatic spike of insurance costs in recent years
Adjusted for inflation, the insured costs of natural disasters (mainly related to weather) have soared in recent years. These numbers ignore uninsured costs and the human toll of flooding. Courtesy Evan Mills, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

In the bulls-eye of the storm
It didn't take a genius to realize that New Orleans was in the cross-hairs of disaster. As the climatologists noted, "Scores of scientists and engineers had warned of the threat to New Orleans long before climate change was seriously considered, and a Katrina-like storm or worse was (and is) inevitable even in a stable climate." Most of the city is below sea level.

In fact, emergency-management types have long recognized that only a West-Coast earthquake could rival the death and destruction resulting from a bull's-eye hit on New Orleans by a category 5 hurricane (Katrina, a category 3 storm, struck east of the Big Easy). For example, in 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published "Washing Away," a prescient series warning that a hurricane that killed thousands was "only a matter of time."

As the climate experts recognize, people are flooding (forgive the terminology) to the coasts, especially in Florida and along the Gulf, scene of so much devastation in the past two years. The Why Files was not the first to wonder about the wisdom of preventing, not curing, flood damage, by dedicating floodplains to farms, forests, and wetlands rather than houses, highways and strip malls. But that's easier said than done. Homebuyers still seem eager for a water view, and developers are happy to oblige. Some cities, notably New Orleans, are surrounded by vulnerable lowlands, cramping development space. And building makes money in the short run; it may take decades for a practice of avoiding floodplains to save money (and lives).

debris strewn plain with sign reading '12 lots 4-sale...'The ad for this ocean-front property might read like this: Ocean view. Needs work. Photo: Marvin Nauman/FEMA

A flood of memories?
Gerald Galloway, a retired general in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who worked on the upper Mississippi River during the flood of 1993, says ruefully that preventing floods is a back-seat issue. "Damages continue to rise, and there is no federal policy to direct future actions. Following the 1993 flood, we reported that, across the country, we have people and property at risk. We said floods would continue to occur, and losses of life would continue to grow."

Galloway, who is now a research professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland, added, "We made a number of recommendations to the White House, but with the exception of minimal adjustments to the flood insurance program, none of the major recommendations were acted on, and the nation's flood plain management program continues to be rudderless. The half-life of memory of a flood is very short, you can already see that. We have seen the destruction of Katrina, and the answers are very clear, but no one has risen up to say, 'now is the time to do something.'"

So what are we doing in the wake of Katrina?

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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