What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…Hurricane Katrina (Sept. 6, 2005)

Posted: September 6, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lori Jennings

Now that Hurricane Katrina is over, the Gulf region and the nation have begun to deal with the aftermath. George Mason experts weigh in on the environmental and economic impacts of this major disaster.

According to Changwoo Ahn, Environmental Science and Policy, prevention is key to avoiding future tragedies. First, he describes a need to restore more wetlands to work as a buffer for wind, flooding and other natural elements. Second, he calls for a “paradigm shift” in river management.

“The rivers have been regulated for the last 100 years with dams and levees, which permanently altered the natural flow regimes of the rivers throughout the United States and even more so along the Mississippi River,” he says.

He also cautions that simply raising the levee may not be a simple solution to protect us from the next flooding. “We need to truly understand the nature of the flooding and the dynamics of the river. For example, we should consider letting the river flood more often, naturally, in the future.”

Tragedy Was Preventable

Peter Balint, Public and International Affairs and Environmental Science and Policy, says the tragedy was preventable. He outlines a range of factors that contributed, starting with the immediate cause of a powerful hurricane entirely out of our control.

However, Balint adds, “There were many short-, medium- and long-term human factors that made it much worse than it needed to be.” He says the first problem was building and maintaining a major city in a bowl below sea level in a coastal delta area prone to hurricanes and river floods.

Second, he says, “We failed to keep both the manmade and natural protections up to the necessary standards. The manmade protection was the levee system, which needed maintenance and upgrading that it didn’t get. The natural protection was the Gulf Coast environment.

“Through the unintended consequences of many actions over a long time, the wetlands, bayous, sandbars and other natural barriers that could have absorbed some of the awesome power of the enormous storm surge had shrunk or disappeared entirely.”

As one of the coastal geologists working in Louisiana during the 1980s and 90s, Randolph McBride, associate professor of geology in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, agrees that the disaster was avoidable. He has long known that scientific evidence indicated the doomsday scenario for New Orleans in the event a category 4 or 5 hurricane passed the city.

“Coastal Louisiana is especially vulnerable to storms because the land and wetlands of the Mississippi delta are sinking at a rate of about 0.8 cm per year and global sea level is rising on the order of 0.2 cm per year. Together, this means that relative sea level is rising around the New Orleans area at a rate of about 1 cm per year,” McBride says.

“New Orleans is surrounded by levees to keep floodwaters from both the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico out of the city. However, these levees were built only to withstand a one in one-hundred-year storm (category 3 hurricane, but not a category 4 or 5 hurricane).

“If human development continues to increase or persist along the dynamic coast, we must be prepared for natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis. And if the City of New Orleans is going to survive, levees must be built to withstand the one in one-thousand-year storm, similar to the dykes that protect the Netherlands.”

Putting Ourselves in Harm’s Way

Rick Diecchio, Geology, cites the disaster we are facing today along the Gulf Coast as just one example of the danger of continuing to try to sustain habitation in places that cannot support our systems or lifestyles.

He cautions, “We do know that natural hazards exist. We don’t know when they will occur. We don’t know what the worst-case scenario is for most of these events. But we do know which areas on the planet are prone to these hazards. When we inhabit these areas, we put ourselves in harm’s way. Anything we do to encourage people to live in these areas will only increase the severity of these ‘natural’ disasters.”

Government Needs to Consider U.S. Economic Health

Donald Boudreaux, Economics, cautions against the government reacting to the tragedy in a manner that could seriously impact our country’s economic health. “Hurricane Katrina is obviously a major catastrophe. But it will turn into an even worse one if our government, in the heat of the moment, implements ill-advised policies such as price controls.”

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