During my coverage of the aftermath of hurricane Camille in 1969, I talked with experts who predicted that some day New Orleans would not be so “lucky.” Eventually, they said, unless massive preventive steps were taken, there would be a storm so big that the levees would not hold, the pumps would fail, the city would be inundated, the death and destruction would be like something out of the Old Testament. No one said that the devastation would be unimaginable; they were imagining it. There have been warnings ever since. There were warnings even before Camille.
In its October, 2004, issue, The National Geographic published an article by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., reporting on predictions by scientists and engineers of a disaster that would someday strike New Orleans. The piece included this vision:
A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.
Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.
Last fall when that article appeared, what it described had not happened. This fall, it has. Bourne wrote about protective action recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers and a coalition of scientists, environmentalists and business people—and about the Bush administration’s refusal to commit to the spending it would have taken to start correcting the problem. The President said the other day that no one could have envisioned the levees giving way. Read the Geographic’s stark account. Then, decide whether the leaders of this administration understood what the experts were telling them and, if so, why they did not insist on immediate Congressional approval of flood-control funding.
This is not a question of hindsight being the best foresight. It is a scandalous rejection of foresight that was based on experience, evidence and expertise. It has gone on for decades at all levels of government; parish, city, state and federal. When the relocation, burials, cleanup and rebuilding are done, will there be leadership to put a plan in place to protect New Orleans from the next category 4 or 5 storm? That storm will come.