Editorial: Katrina, Catastrophe, and Purification                              Late 2005, Archive


Since the shocking events in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, we have read countless speculations about the various ways enemies could try to force us to change our way of life with catastrophic terrorist attacks (with weapons of mass destruction). We are called upon to expect a “purification,” to renounce our individualism and self-serving aims and embrace the common good, often centered around someone’s idea of faith.


Over the last few days of August, 2005, instead, we witness what is probably the greatest natural disaster in American history, likely as of this writing to cause more deaths than did 9/11. (The appropriate word is “catastrophe,” as in the 1950s board game “Star Reporter” that graded with “disaster” and “catastrophe” cards.)  Hurricane Katrina (perhaps named after one of the female villains—Kate-- of “Days of Our Lives”) struck with an ambush almost as sudden as the blow of a terrorist. A small hurricane of Florida’s Gold Coast before the last weekend of August, it exploded when it hit the Gulf of Mexico (the medical term is “blast crisis”) into a Category 5 Hurricane and made a beeline on New Orleans. (Three weeks later Rita would also explode when entering the hot water Gulf.) Then came the cruelest irony of all. At the last minute, Katrina seemed to weaken and veer to the East, apparently sparing New Orleans an immediate catastrophic flood and probably replicating the 1969 damage from Camille over southern Mississippi. About eighteen hours after Katrina had left, however, the levees protecting the below-sea-levels of the Crescent City softened and ruptured in several places. Military troops and engineers have had surprising difficulty in stopping the leaks, a complication that no one anticipated. The lack of power is a factor, but should not explain the delayed mechanical failures of the walls.


Furthermore, the devastation to coastal areas east of New Orleans seem to be unprecedented, and the damage to crude oil and refinery production could be long-term and substantial, leading to gasoline shortages and at least informal rationing as well as record prices.


We are left with a debate, already started after 9/11, whether natural market incentives favored by libertarians can restore this region of the country without undue sacrifices from others outside the region. To some extent, these forces are already proving effective in New York City. The private sector is most enthusiastic in preparing to rebuild lower Manhattan. I have an episode in one of my screenplay scripts to demonstrate that point.


However, we all know that there hovers over us the specter of really catastrophic events from natural and manmade sources. I won’t rehearse all of them here (some of them have happened in the movies—I’ll just ask, if we blew up an asteroid or comet with a nuclear weapon, would we feel the EMP effect on earth?)  Can we keep a market economy going without mandating enormous sacrifices from everyone?


In the case of Katrina, it seems like there could be tens of thousands of homeless, maybe even in hundreds of thousands, for months to years. The question comes up (1) should Americans be required to pay a one-time special tax to cover this extraordinary event (2) if so, should New Orleans be rebuilt in its current location, much below sea level. (If Congress spends $150 billion, as it proposes, on the rebuilding, that would average $500 per American. Maintaining the levees properly would have cost $40 billion.)


I would propose that much of the rebuilding, including business districts and public facilities, would have to be built north of Lake Pontchartrain, above sea level and a little more sheltered from storm surges, if taxpayers are involved. It would appear that new lower-income housing could be built and major retail (yes, Wal-Mart!!) and other businesses (for jobs and infrastructure) could be built quickly in higher areas north of the Lake if sufficient public and private leadership were exercised. If rebuilt, the levee system would also need constant security to avoid temptation to terrorists.


We often have debates about people “choosing to live” in dangerous areas and rebuilding at public expense. Of course, they have to pay much more for insurance. We hear a lot about California (not just earthquakes, but brush fires and mudslides). In truth, it is not easy for anyone to guarantee that he or she can avoid living in such an area forever. One can argue that living in large cities also targets people for massive terrorist attacks. I can recall moralistic discussions of the value of small town real estate back in the 1970s.


For most of my adult life, I have lived with various threats to the stability of the world in which I need to be able to move around. In the 1970s, we had gas lines and the threat of rationing, and a fiscal crisis in New York City when I lived there. AIDS threatened the gay community as we know it (it certainly changed it) in the 1980s, and pandemics could threaten us today. But some of the threats we face today do make us question our commitment to individualism, and the idea that people can count on setting their own personal goals, that will depend on technical infrastructures that they cannot control. The threats do help us understand the commitment of many people to family values.


There has been a lot of angry rhetoric about race reported in the media. It does seem that most of the refugees stranded in the flooded city (as of 9/1/2005) belong to racial minorities, and that the poor lived in the areas of the city the most below sea level. The videos of New Orleans, with graphic scenes of looting and lawlessness, made it look like Somalia.  But it is time to get beyond collectivist thinking about disasters like this. For the first time in modern history (although this did happen up through the time of the War Between the States, and one can certainly cite the 1900 Galveston hurricane and 1906 San Francisco earthquake) an entire major city has suddenly become unlivable.  New Orleans is unusual in being the only major American city (I believe) with significant areas below sea level. Other cities, particularly on the West Coast, are subject to destruction from earthquakes or volcanism. Of course we all can talk reams about terrorist scenarios. Of particular concern is what would be our response if hundreds of thousands of urban buildings were suddenly condemned (and made economically worthless) by a nuclear or large radiological terrorist attack. What we face is a need to characterize the sacrifices that would demanded of every American once a certain level of destruction is breached; already there are renewed calls for mandatory national service or a draft. (The market is certainly enforcing sacrifices at the gas pumps in the way of prices and spot shortages, and we do not know how long this will last; we would be particularly vulnerable to another natural disaster or attack in the short run of a few weeks.)  One artifact of the evacuations from the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center is that, when the military was finally able (on 9/2/2005) to increase the volume of evacuations, women and children were supposed to be taken first, a “moralistic” throwback to gender-based values of earlier and less technological generations. There needs to be a way of quantifying and describing what would be expected at an individual level. I am struck by reports even during the first week of persons (mostly within about 300 miles of the catastrophe zones, well within the “Bible Belt”) willing to house perfect strangers in their homes as an act of “faith,” and be willing to give up their own privacy, family life, or other priorities. That would be hard for me to do myself (can apartment complexes and military bases be used to house the most of the displaced without asking other families to taken them in and integrate them into family living spaces as essentially foster dependents?).  Some people are setting an example of what could become routinely expected of others in the future (a common way in which culture changes). Could we have an environment some day where people are routinely asked at professional job interviews if they volunteered after the 9/11, Katrina (or some other) catastrophe? In the long run, such developments could give organizations like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Boy Scouts, or various “faith based” services social power resembling that of government and the military.


©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use


Katrina resources that have come to my attention:




On the purely political questions, there are reports that the Bush administration stonewalled a $14 billion project to upgrade the levees, a project that would have prevented a disaster that has and will cost much more. Of course, there are questions about “over commitment” to Iraq. The very best technical information on the belated levee failures seems to be that they were overflown briefly during the actual storm, and that some levees will gradually fail afterwards once they have overflown at all. There are basic calculations in any (advanced placement) high school calculus or physics course that can be done on this. However, was there time during the first twelve hours after the storm left for the Corps of Engineers to secure the weakest sections of the levees? There should have been, and I wonder why this wasn’t done. There are also some reports that one of the levees failed because it was struck by a barge, but why was the barge allowed to be in the area with an approaching Category 5 hurricane?


There is an AP story by John Pain that Katrina was only a Category 3 storm when it passed New Orleans, and this raises even more questions about the Army Corps of Engineers competence with the levees. http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/H/HURRICANE_KATRINA_STRENGTH?SITE=WFAA&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT


Check the story by Michael Grunwald and Susan B. Glasser, “Experts Say Faulty Levees Caused Much of Flooding,” The Washington Post, Sept. 21, 2005. Was there contractor culpability?  If so, how should the public share the sacrifice?  President Bush has repeatedly promised no more taxes, but deficits and interest rates, as well as oil prices, will rise.


The correct donation site for the Red Cross is https://give.redcross.org/donation-form.asp?hurricanemasthead  The Red Cross does not solicit donations by email or telemarketing; any such solicitations would be phishing or fakes. 


Draft and national service

Global warming


Pay your dues

Mathematical notions of meritocracy

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