Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hubris: Thy name is the Corps of Engineers

Sorry for the long drought of posts ... I've been unable to connect during my recent trip to Beijing, China. I had Internet but couldn't get through. While there, I wrote the following in response to a news item.

According to the Associated Press:

“Katrina ruling could bring new deluge of lawsuits
“NEW ORLEANS — A landmark court ruling blaming the Army Corps of Engineers' "monumental negligence" for some of the worst flooding from Hurricane Katrina could lead to a new deluge: billions of dollars in legal action from thousands of storm victims.

“The federal judge's harshly worded decision also served as vindication for residents of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans who have long argued that Katrina was largely a man-made disaster, caused by the federal government's failure to maintain the levees protecting the city.”

This story has two components: the first is the long-standing arrogance of the Corps of Engineers in trying to “manage” the Mississippi River (and others, of course) for the benefit of humankind. The 19th Century belief that humans could bend the natural world at will to serve people has not yet died its well-deserved death. All that the “management” of the Mississippi River has accomplished is the consumption of vast amounts of resources for what is inevitably only a temporary solution. The river eventually will go wherever it wants to go – its massive and inexorable power exceeds our ability to force it to our will indefinitely.

By maintaining the fiction (at great taxpayer expense) that we can force the river to go where we want it to go (and stay out of areas well below sea level), we’ve encouraged the settlement of places that would otherwise be natural wetlands. Katrina was the catalyst for the failure of the levees, and it might well be the case that the levees had been neglected, but those levees were destined to fail eventually when given a serious test by heavy rainfall leading to floods or a hurricane even stronger than Katrina. Perhaps the Corps was less willing to spend its resources on the levees around New Orleans because it had other, higher priorities. I’m not trying to rationalize for the Corps – far from it – the Corps has created the very situation in New Orleans that encouraged the “development” of the areas protected by those very levees. The flooded parishes in New Orleans, in effect, were created by the Corps (and the city of New Orleans, which also has a long tradition of arrogance, dating back at least to the 1927 Mississippi River floods).

It long has been recognized that New Orleans was in the center of a bullseye, and Katrina was a very near-miss that nevertheless was enough to trigger the collapse of some of the inevitably-doomed levees. Perhaps that was due to maintenance that was inadequate, or perhaps not. The fate of the levees, maintained or not, was to fail.

This legal ruling clearly leads the way for a wholesale plundering of the Corps via lawsuits. Of course, those lawsuits could utterly destroy the budget of the Corps, which presumably would be expected to continue its mandated duties, anyway. So how could the Corps continue to operate in the face of all those lawsuits? Evidently, the Federal Government would have to increase its outlays to support Corps activities. What cutbacks to other programs would this necessitate? From where would this money come?

What this amounts to, then, is a huge bailout for some of the residents of New Orleans – those able to hire lawyers and drink deeply from the Federal trough. In turn, this means that the taxpayers of the U.S. would be bankrolling welfare for those relatively well-to-do New Orleans residents.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it makes absolutely no sense to rebuild those flooded parishes in New Orleans. All it does is replace a thoroughly riddled target bullseye with a new one, ready to be destroyed by the next big flood or tropical cyclone that inevitably will affect New Orleans. The message of Katrina isn’t truly about negligence by the Corps. It’s about hubris by the Corps and the people of New Orleans.

Those New Orleans residents seeking to rebuild, perhaps with the infusion of funds from lawsuits against the Corps, are guilty of blaming the hand that created the situation where they were at risk of disaster in the first place (the Army Corps of Engineers). That disaster occurred in the form of Katrina, but these folks apparently still don’t get the message. If they want to blame to Corps for something, it should be for cooperating with the City of New Orleans in perpetuating the myth that the overwhelming forces of Nature could be held at bay forever. The residents seeking funds to rebuild will share the blame for the disaster(s) yet to come, if they go back to those parishes and rebuild.

The rest of the nation’s taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for the arrogance and naivete of New Orleans residents. Those in New Orleans who want to go back to the flooded parishes shouldn't be bailed out when the next meteorological disaster devastates those places once again. There should be no government-supported safety net, and either no insurance at all or insurance only with a massive increase in premiums to cover their eventual losses. The inevitable disaster's costs should be the sole responsibility of those foolish enough to rebuild and live there.

Response to "Anonymous":

Apparently, your being offended didn't give you the courage even to acknowledge ownership of your comment by using your own name. If you're offended by my comments, that's your personal choice, and not my responsibility.

If New Orleans were my hometown and I lived in one of those flood-prone parishes, I'd be doing my damnedest to get out of there as best I could! I'm sorry for those who have to stay, but for those who choose to stay, I offer the following: it's costing billions to allow you the chance to live there. That cost is being spread to everyone in the nation, rather than falling exclusively on those of you who seem to believe that it's our national responsibility to help foot the bill for you to have the privilege of rebuilding at the center of a bullseye!

Greensburg, Kansas, is a poor analogy - there's no particular reason to single out Greensburg for tornado threat compared to the surroundings for hundreds of miles in any direction. The odds of them being dead-centered by another violent tornado in the next hundred years are really low. On the other hand, much of the "developed" portion of New Orleans exists because of the levees that hold back the Gulf and the Mississippi River in the best of times. Levees always fail eventually, and it had long been foretold that New Orleans would get hit by a bad hurricane, resulting in catastrophic flooding of the low areas. Greensburg isn't at the center of such a bullseye and it makes much more sense to rebuild Greensburg than it does to rebuild those places in New Orleans that are below sea level! The odds of another major hurricane hitting New Orleans in the next hundred years are pretty high.

New Orleans has a long history of arrogance ... read the book Rising Tide by John M. Barry for a shameful episode in their past. It's available at I understand you might have many reasons for wanting to remain in New Orleans, but none of those reasons are rational.