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After Katrina, Floods Still A Risk

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: August 29, 2007

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When investigating the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, a House of Representatives select committee cited a “failure of initiative” at all levels of government. The storm killed 1,836 people, caused an estimated $81 billion in damage, and displaced some two million people. The population of New Orleans is currently about 66 percent of its pre-Katrina level, and the city’s uneven recovery is examined in depth in this New York Times interactive feature. The Department of Homeland Security has since quadrupled its stockpiles of emergency supplies and sought to improve emergency planning at the community level. The 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act signed by President Bush in August promises to provide increased funding for emergency communications and first responders. Yet some experts believe the lessons of the disaster appear to have gone unlearned. In his recent book, The Edge of Disaster, CFR’s Stephen Flynn says the levees that failed to protect New Orleans two years ago are being rebuilt to the same standard as before, capable only of enduring a Category 3 hurricane.

With Hurricane Dean having just pounded parts of Mexico and the Caribbean, U.S. communities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are bracing for the peak of the 2007 hurricane season. New Orleans is hardly the only U.S. city at risk from floodwaters, as Midwestern communities recently learned (AP). National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield told the U.S. Senate last year that a Category 3 storm in New York City could create a storm surge of up to twenty-five feet (PDF). Miami, located at the tip of the Florida peninsula, could also be ravaged (weather.com) in a big storm.

Some hurricane-prone population centers have carefully planned responses. Florida’s emergency management system is often held up as a model, which former Governor Jeb Bush attributes to organization at both the state and community (WashPost) level. In New York, where residents are less worried about hurricanes, the Office of Emergency Management has mailed fliers on how residents can prepare for storm emergencies, and city officials say they could shelter some six hundred thousand evacuees in the event of a major storm. But the city’s emergency communications (NYT) capacity was called into question when heavy rains flooded the subways in August and the transit authority had no effective way of getting stranded commuters information. Poorer states and communities, which lack the resources to properly prepare, could have even larger problems.

Flooding affected more people worldwide than any other kind of natural disaster in 2005, the most recent year for which UN data is available. These disasters were not limited to places such as flood-prone Bangladesh; in fact, that year the United States endured more natural disasters (PDF) than any other nation, except India and China. The UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Relief recently published a set of guidelines (PDF) designed to help lessen the impact of natural disasters. But environmental trends appear headed in the opposite direction, with flooding expected to increase (Reuters) in coming years.

Other developed nations have also confronted the prospect of major flooding. Britain, which recently saw some of its worst floods in decades, protects its capital city with the Thames Barrier, a series of gates stowed in the riverbed that can be raised to ward off a tidal surge. With some 60 percent of the nation prone to flooding, the Netherlands has long grappled with the threat of inundation. That nation’s “Delta Plan,” a massive engineering project, could offer some lessons for U.S. coastal areas. A more novel approach (CNN) exploited by one Dutch company involves building floating houses.

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