Carol Forsloff – Nearly six years ago a terrible storm hit the City of New Orleans, flooding major areas and destroying lives and property while displacing and injuring thousands, in a story of a failed infrastructure the type of which occurs nationwide.
Half the United States is protected by levee systems. A North Dakota town is now nearly submerged because of its lack of protection from flooding rivers. . The same has been true of great floods in the interior of the country. Levees decades ago were built for a different world, based on facts known at the time. But like science and medicine, environmental information changes, requiring adjustment to decisions.
The town of Minot, North Dakota is nearly under water, barely missing being completely drowned in waters that have risked the town over many days. Folks rushed to prevent the flooding by building levees, but lacked the time and resources to protect the town in time The value of good levees, and good maintenance, is a reminder in what happened to this town. Failure to protect by advance planning in many ways is reminiscent of what has occurred to other towns and places since Hurricane Katrina banged up New Orleans in a fashion people still feel.
The New Orleans levee system was built to protect the town from Category 3 storm, but the system did not protect the town, as it failed to meet that level determined years ago, as pointed out by the Washington Post and other media after some time had passed. Recorded levels for Hurricane Katrina at different points around the town put the Category at Level 2, while others were at 3. Suffice to say, all arguments about those differences aside, the engineering failures and lack of oversight created a system that could not protect the City of New Orleans from the blows of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Not long after folks questioned why New Orleans residents continued to complain, to organize, petition and ask the nation for remembrance. While on the surface it might have appeared to be irrational protest, the fact is the levee systems of the United States have failed citizens around the United States, as the nation’s infrastructure has been given short shrift in Congress.
As the nation is forced to make choices, both at the local and national level, the weather conditions, unpredictable as they are, need to be acknowledged in future planning, according to environmental experts. We have to adjust our wants and needs to conform to the snowball effect that takes place as a result of disasters. For New Orleans, it means a town still staggering in some quarters, listed as one of the dirtiest towns in America, with abandoned buildings and poorly constructed repairs. It has meant families missing members essential to their core, displaced persons trying to find their niche in some new place, businesses uprooted in ways that cannot be replaced, and political strife that continues to plague the state.
In short what happens as a consequence of disasters has everything to do with what happens to the economy, as the Risk Institute points out in its examination of Galveston, Texas after Hurricane Iniki.
The cost of environmental disasters is passed along from one segment of the economy to the other, in that snowballing style that hits the social order and weakens it, especially where it is most vulnerable. Those who lived in the most exposed disaster locations are the rural poor, the city’s struggling middle class and indigent as well, the elderly, the children, persons with serious medical conditions and the marginalized among us. But these disasters change the economy of the areas where they occur, taking jobs and livelihoods upon which folks depend and for the nation to recover from its economic uncertainties.
While the Congress debates what needs to be done and the politicians prate, knowing the essential needs of the country, especially its infrastructure and how it impacts all of us, is essential in what happens. New Orleans is central in that process, setting as it did a modern precedent for the nation’s failures to maintain a system of protection for the town, the type of which is failing everywhere, and drowning other people in its wake. By keeping New Orleans in our memories, by consistent reminders through symbols and discussion, we keep the message that protection systems are paramount to economic recovery and to the progress of the United States.