It is a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions for America. But the irony and the tragedy of the killer storm called Katrina is that the hurricane's devastating effects were entirely predictable -- and largely preventable.
Engineers have known for years that New Orleans levees couldn't withstand anything above a Category 3 hurricane. Ecologists had long warned that the loss of protective barrier islands and coastal wetlands made everything along the Gulf Coast, from refineries to vacation homes, far more vulnerable to major storms.
Scientists have been learning that, for whatever reasons, hurricanes have become more destructive over the past 30 years. And with the world's oil-producing and gasoline-refining capabilities strained, it has been clear that storm-related damage to the highly concentrated Gulf Coast energy industry could be hugely disruptive to the nation's oil, gasoline, and natural gas supplies.
HELPFUL PROGRAMS ERODED. Yet not only have these warnings gone largely unheeded but for years government policies have been putting the country at a greater risk of both natural disasters and energy shocks. Along the Gulf, "we've had a tremendously irresponsible policy, destroying protective natural features while encouraging risky and precarious development," says Frederick Krimgold, director of Virginia Tech's disaster risk reduction program. And although Congress passed an energy bill in August, it does almost nothing to solve the problems exposed by Katrina.
The major lesson policymakers should draw from the catastrophe is just how vulnerable the U.S. is becoming to natural disasters and energy disruptions. In fact, some experts say, Americans have been mistakenly lulled into thinking terrorism is the most pressing threat -- and they argue that the relentless focus on staving off suicide bombers has left crucial gaps elsewhere.
Case in point: After the huge 1993 Mississippi River flood, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began buying up floodplain property, preventing people from rebuilding and being swept away again. But that effort, and a larger FEMA mitigation program, no longer exists.
And just this summer, the proposed funding for the New Orleans Army Corps of Engineers district was cut by $71 million for fiscal 2006. Shelved, among other items, was a study to determine ways to protect the region from a Category 5 hurricane.
POLICY LESSONS. Americans are already paying the price for these policy lapses in the form of higher energy costs. And inevitably, natural disasters will hit other parts of the nation, in part just because of more development. New York and Washington certainly aren't immune, warns John N. McHenry, chief scientist at Baron Advanced Meteorological Systems, a forecasting outfit in Raleigh, N.C. Says McHenry: "It would not take much to flood all of Manhattan."
Everyone with an agenda is pushing his pet ideas as a solution. House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) thinks that our energy woes can be solved with more production. "We could be drilling in Alaska right now," he says.
On the other side of the political spectrum, activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. blames the Bush Administration for failing to push tough fuel economy standards and curbs on global warming. Says Kennedy: "Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children."
Partisan fulminations aside, there are policy lessons from Katrina on both the energy and the natural resource management fronts. Here's what could be done:
Restore natural buffer zones
The combination of the Mississippi River levees and oil and gas development has had a devastating effect on the whole Gulf Coast. The levees prevent sediment from reaching the delta. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies have dug channels through the wetlands and sucked oil from underneath, causing the land to sink, saltwater to intrude -- and thousands of acres to submerge.
Although reclamation measures were already under way to restore Gulf marshlands, they were too little too late. "I'm hoping that one lesson to come out of this is that talk about rolling back protections for wetlands [all across the country] will end," says Yale University ecologist David K. Skelly.
Limit development in the most vulnerable areas
Experts say it's crazy to keep building casinos and vacation homes on coastal dunes, barrier islands, and other vulnerable spots. One solution is to stop offering federal insurance for such projects. Another is to put the land off limits to development. During the Clinton Administration, FEMA "was working hard" to slow such development, says Virginia Tech's Krimgold. But such efforts ended after FEMA became part of the Homeland Security Dept.
Aiming for a better balance of risk and development means tough decisions. A city like New Orleans, lying in a vast bowl below sea level and protected by fragile levees in a hurricane belt, probably should never have been built. But once it was there, more effort should have been put into strengthening the levees and the city's pumping system. "We knew this was a danger, and it was clearly brought to our attention," says Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who is working on a bill to improve emergency communications during disasters.
Get serious about climate change
"It is increasingly clear that global warming makes [hurricanes] more severe and destructive," asserts former Energy Dept. official Joseph Romm. "Katrina is the shape of things to come." Plus, action to combat climate change, such as increased development of renewable sources, has the additional beneficial effect of reducing the nation's vulnerability to energy shocks.
Make a Presidential appeal
In the short term, experts suggest, President Bush could minimize the impact on gasoline prices simply by asking Americans to be more aware and careful -- by inflating tires, tuning up cars, and driving more slowly. The Environmental Protection Agency also relaxed clean fuel standards to reduce the number of gasoline formulations refineries need to make and to open the door to more imports. Over the medium term, moving to a single national standard for gasoline would reduce pressure on stressed refineries.
Increase energy diversity
Over the longer term, the answer is greater diversity -- of sources, geographic locations, types of energy -- and greater use of energy-efficiency measures. Combined, these steps would make the economy more immune to energy shocks.
A number of states, for instance, have already required that a certain percentage of electricity be generated from renewable sources. A national standard would help even more to reduce the impact of shortages or price spikes in natural gas.
Boost energy efficiency
Improving the fuel economy of the cars and trucks Americans drive to 40 mpg would save 6 million barrels of oil a day, many times more than is being lost because of Katrina.
Indeed, all these policies are simple, if not easy, and most have been suggested for years. In the end, Katrina could be a wake-up call for pols to finally stop posturing and get serious about the nation's energy vulnerabilities. If they don't, cataclysms like Katrina could happen again.
By John Carey, with Lorraine Woellert and Eamon Javers in Washington and Otis Port in New York