Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Post Katrina Reconstruction Skirts Real Issue

The talk of how much to rebuild - or whether to rebuild at all - in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is gaining momentum both in the press and on talk radio. (Christian Science Monitor: How much to rebuild after Katrina?.) While it makes for interesting conversation, the point is pretty much moot. The areas ravaged by the hurricane will be rebuilt. That's been true for virtually every natural disaster that has hit the US throughout its history, and it will be true in the aftermath of Katrina as well.

Whether or not to rebuild the areas devastated by the flooding is not the issue we should be discussing, however. Regardless of which side of the aisle you support, it is painfully obvious that neither local nor federal officials were prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. Arguments over how long it took FEMA to respond, or who's to blame for lack of response, slow response, or no response at all make for great talk radio, but they still fail to address the fundamental problem. There is apparently no action plan in place to address predictable and large-scale natural disasters. If we learn nothing else from Katrina, that lesson must be driven home.

My home state of Rhode Island has been hit by Katrina sized disasters twice in the last century. The 1938 Hurricane filled the city of Providence with 20 feet of water. Hurricane Carol in 1954 flooded Providence with 18 feet of water. Much of Providence County's waterfront property was washed away in both of those storms. The response after 1954 was to build a hurricane barrier at Fox Point, presumably to prevent a storm surge from flooding the city ever again. That barrier has yet to be tested by mother nature, however, and significant coastal development in the last 40 years has likely rendered that barrier obsolete.

What is needed nationwide is an organization charged with running "what if" scenarios for predictable major natural disasters. Action plans for immediate response, evacuation, shelter support, and ultimate reconstruction must be documented prior to disasters of this nature. When the flood waters hit the city is not the time to be scratching our heads trying to develop an action plan. Hurricanes hit the eastern seaboard of the US. Earthquakes ravage the west coast. Volcanoes erupt along the ring of fire in the west. The Mississippi delta floods. Each one of those disasters will hit the US again. As we've seen with Katrina, the effects are at the national level, not local. Therefore, a national plan must be developed, documented, and funded to provide immediate relief when these disasters strike.

FEMA is not currently charged with this type of planning. They are responsible for the national response in the wake of the disaster, but long-term strategic planning is not currently part of their mission. I'm not quite sure how you can do one without the other, but that's what we have in place at the moment. Change is certainly needed. So rather than talking about what we should rebuild in Louisiana, let's talk about how best to prepare for the next disaster. Being caught by surprise this time was shocking and embarrassing. Being caught by surprise next time is inexcusable.


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