In this issue

Jonathan Tobin: Defending the Right to a Jewish State

Heather Hale: Compliment your kids without giving them big heads

Megan Shauri: 10 ways you are ruining your own happiness

Carolyn Bigda: 8 Best Dividend Stocks for 2015

Kiplinger's Personal Finance editors: 7 Things You Didn't Know About Paying Off Student Loans

Samantha Olson: The Crucial Mistake 55% Of Parents Are Making At Their Baby's Bedtime

Densie Well, Ph.D., R.D. Open your eyes to yellow vegetables

The Kosher Gourmet by Megan Gordon With its colorful cache of purples and oranges and reds, COLLARD GREEN SLAW is a marvelous mood booster --- not to mention just downright delish
April 18, 2014

Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology

Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

Megan Wallgren: 10 things I've learned from my teenagers

Lizette Borreli: Green Tea Boosts Brain Power, May Help Treat Dementia

John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious

April 14, 2014

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time

Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

The Kosher Gourmet by Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon Don't dare pass over these Pesach picks for Manischewitz!

April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2005 / 16 Elul, 5765

The Loss of New Orleans Wasn't Just a Tragedy. It Was a Plan

By Jonathan Rauch

Printer Friendly Version
Email this article

http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | The evacuation plans were inadequate and then bungled. The rescue was slow, confused, and often nonexistent. Yet the most striking fact of the New Orleans catastrophe has received less notice than it deserves: The plan for New Orleans in case of a hit from a very powerful hurricane was to lose the city.

In other words, if a severe hurricane struck, the city's flooding and abandonment was not what would happen if the plan failed. It was the plan.

New Orleans is built between a lake, a river, and the Gulf of Mexico, and it is lower than the surrounding waters. It was kept dry by an extensive system of levees and pumps. That system was itself contributing to the slow subsidence of the city.

The levee system was largely designed in the early 1960s. By the standards of their day, the levees were built conservatively, but within certain constraints. In particular, they were built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane.

Hurricanes come in two jumbo sizes: Category 4 and, most severe but rarest, Category 5. A storm of either magnitude could deliver a surge that would overtop or breach the levees. The city would be flooded, to depths as great as 20 feet. It would become a lake. Much of it would be destroyed, and many people would die.

All of this was well known. Press accounts and public officials have been quite open about it for years. "Evacuation is the only way to protect New Orleanians," reported the Philadelphia Inquirer last year. It quoted Terry C. Tullier, the New Orleans director of emergency preparedness, as saying, "It's only a matter of time." Col. Peter Rowan, the commander of the New Orleans District of the Army Corps of Engineers, told the Inquirer that the city was "at the mercy of chance for the foreseeable future." Media coverage was rife with such warnings.

What could be done? "It's possible to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane," Al Naomi, a senior project manager with the Corps, told the Inquirer. "To do nothing is tantamount to negligence." In that interview, he estimated that hurricane-proofing the levees and building floodgates at the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain might cost $1 billion and take 20 years. In other interviews, Naomi estimated the cost at $2 billion to $2.5 billion and said the project could be completed in three to five years.

"The point is to eliminate that storm-surge threat with one of these plans," Naomi told Riverside, a Corps of Engineers magazine. "The philosophy of what we do during a hurricane would change. We could spend more time protecting our homes and less time trying to get out of the city in these desperate evacuations."

In 1999, reports the Chicago Tribune, Congress authorized the Army Corps to conduct a $12 million study to determine the cost of protecting New Orleans. But the study was not set to get under way until 2006, and it has so far received funding of only $100,000 to $200,000. "It was not clear why the study has taken so long to begin," the Tribune reported. Meanwhile, Congress and the White House consistently and sharply cut requests for levee-improvement funds.

Katrina came ashore as a Category 4 storm. The levees failed and the city, only partially evacuated, was swamped. "The intensity of this storm simply exceeded the design capacity of this levee," Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the commander of the Corps of Engineers, told reporters on September 2.

Told so barely, the tale suggests shocking imprudence. But hindsight is 20/20. Remember, the odds of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans any given year were small. Strock told reporters, "We figured we had a 200- or 300-year level of protection. That means that an event that we were protecting from might be exceeded every 200 or 300 years. So we had an assurance that, 99.5 percent, this would be OK. We, unfortunately, have had that 0.5 percent activity here."

Remember, too, that reinforcing the levees was a multibillion-dollar project. An ancillary project to restore the protective marshes of the Mississippi Delta, which would have reduced the force of storm surges reaching the city, would cost something like $14 billion over three decades. For that kind of money, there are always competing priorities, some of them urgent.

The question, then, is not whether the failure to improve New Orleans's flood protection was a mistake in hindsight — obviously, it was — but whether it was a reasonable choice in foresight, based on the probable odds and costs as they appeared at the time.

Weighing low-probability, high-cost events is, as it happens, something economists and engineers know a bit about. W. Kip Viscusi, an economist at Harvard Law School and the editor of the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, points out that the Corps of Engineers was among the first to develop and apply what has become a common cost-benefit template.

Using the more cautious of Strock's figures, assume the odds are that a storm surge would overtop or breach the existing New Orleans levees once every 200 years. This seems, if anything, optimistic, given that Category 4 storms hit the city in 1915 and 1947; that a Category 5 storm (Camille) narrowly missed in 1969; and that the devastating Katrina itself was not a direct hit. Still, assume it. Assume also that officials could reasonably expect the city's inundation, abandonment, and partial destruction to cost, ballpark, $200 billion in direct and indirect economic losses.

In any given year, then, figure that the expected economic cost of the swamping of New Orleans is $1 billion (divide the $200 billion cost over 200 years). A $2 billion levee project could be expected to pay for itself, probabilistically speaking, in two years; a $14 billion Delta restoration project, in 14 years.

But wait. New Orleans's 200-year flood might take place a century from now instead of right away (remember, this analysis is from a pre-Katrina standpoint), and money lost in the future matters less to us than money lost today. At an interest rate of 3 percent, Viscusi says, the present value of averting $1 billion in expected annual damage forever is $33 billion; at 5 percent, $20 billion; at 10 percent, $10 billion. Any of those numbers is higher than the estimated cost of hurricane-proofing the levees, and all but the smallest are higher than restoring the Delta.

Now, recall that those calculations reflect only tangible monetary cost. They do not account for inconvenience, pain and trauma, lives uprooted, and, above all, lives lost. Even a superbly organized evacuation would leave thousands of people behind. Moving nursing home patients, emptying hospitals, and losing control of the streets are dangerous at best. To all of which, add the psychic and cultural blow of leaving one of the country's most historic cities an empty ruin.

Strock told reporters that decisions about the levees were based on "whether it's worth the cost to the benefit, and then striking the right level of protection." Unless one uses very optimistic assessments of hurricane odds and economic costs, and also places a low value on human costs, New Orleans did not strike the right level of protection. Even in foresight, Naomi's characterization of New Orleans's vulnerability as "tantamount to negligence" appears justified. A far larger flood-prevention program should have been under way.

"This was not a close call," Viscusi says. "It's a no-brainer that you do this."

The immediate problem is to identify and bury the dead, tend to the refugees, and decide whether and how to rebuild. ("Whatever rebuilding is done in New Orleans, nothing very fancy should go there," says Richard A. Posner, a federal appeals court judge and the author of last year's book Catastrophe: Risk and Response.) After that should come a revision of America's disaster strategy no less sweeping than the post-9/11 revision of America's security strategy.

Does this book sound intriguing?

Click HERE to purchase it at a discount. (Sales help fund JWR.).

For example, Congress should create an independent Disaster Review Board to perform and publish an annual inventory of catastrophic vulnerabilities, highlighting in red all the places where, as in New Orleans, more prevention or mitigation makes sense. The board should prioritize spending and send an overall disaster budget to Congress every year for an up-or-down vote, forcing politicians to confront the issue. If population centers lie over the San Andreas Fault, in the shadow of Mount Rainier (an active volcano that could devastate the Seattle area), or on the floodplains of the Mississippi, the disaster board should be able to propose protecting them, requiring them to protect themselves, or encouraging them to move.

If there is another New Orleans out there, the public should know about it and should have to think about it. Katrina should change American habits of mind forever.

Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal. Comment by clicking here.

Jonathan Rauch Archives

© 2005, Jonathan Rauch