NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 30, 2005

Until this week, New Orleans had been unnaturally lucky with hurricanes. The city sits a bayou away from the Gulf of Mexico, which is basically a giant nursery for hurricanes. The law of averages guarantees that most will miss the Big Easy, but also that a few won't, says the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson.

Hurricane Katrina just grazed the city on the east, meaning that maximum winds there were "only" 120 miles an hour. None of this was a surprise:

  • New Orleans is below sea level, wedged between Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the Gulf, and is kept dry by a system of levees, dikes, canals and massive pumps.
  • Everyone knew these defenses could handle an average hurricane but not a really big one such as Katrina, yet, a million people living in the New Orleans area, not to mention the rest of the country, managed to put that inconvenient fact out of their minds.

It's paradoxical that we have such a sense of urgency about preventing acts of terrorism that we will spend any amount of money to reduce the risk. But we are so laid-back about natural disasters -- which are absolutely inevitable, take more lives and can have devastating economic impact -- that we buy protection only grudgingly, says Robinson.

Maxx Dilley, a policy adviser with the U.N. Development Program in Geneva recommends that we build our settlements with these hazards in mind, and he cites earthquake-prone Japan as a model:

  • Japan has strict building codes, educates citizens on preparedness and does cutting-edge research in earthquake science.
  • But despite all that foresight, Japan suffered huge losses in the devastating Kobe quake of 1995.

"There's no way you can reduce these risks to zero other than staying away from these [risky] places entirely," he says.

Source: Eugene Robinson, "Natural Acts of Terror," Washington Post, August 30, 2005.

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