NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 10, 2005

New Orleans' protection system consists of levees and pumps that actually contributed to is partial demise. Even though Congress authorized the Army Corp to determine the cost of remodeling the system, officials believed they had a 200- to 300-year level of protection, says National Journal's Jonathan Rauch.

Unfortunately, Katrina struck, raising the question of whether the failure to improve New Orleans's flood protection was a mistake in hindsight or a reasonable choice in foresight, says Rauch. According to the cost-benefit template:

  • If we assume that a storm surge would overtop or breach the levees every 200 years, officials could reasonably expect the city's inundation, abandonment and partial destruction would cost $200 billion in losses.
  • In any given year, the expected cost of the swamping of New Orleans is $1 billion; a $2 billion levee project could be expected to pay for itself.

But this is not the case and New Orleans did not strike the right level of protection; a larger flood-prevention program should have been under way. Moreover, the United States should revise its disaster strategy, says Rauch.

  • Congress should create an independent Disaster Review Board to perform and publish an annual inventory of catastrophic vulnerabilities and highlight where more prevention or mitigation makes sense.
  • Spending should be prioritized and an overall disaster budget should be sent to Congress for a vote, forcing politicians to confront the issue.
  • If population centers lie over dangerous areas, the disaster board should be able to propose protecting them, requiring them to protect themselves or encouraging them to move.

If there is another New Orleans out there, the public should know about it and should have to think about it; Katrina should change American habits of mind forever, says Rauch.

Source: Jonathan Rauch, "The Loss Of New Orleans Wasn't Just A Tragedy. It Was A Plan," National Journal, no. 38, September 17, 2005.

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