Katrina and the waves

So it’s a total disaster in New Orleans. Three levees are breached, one of them has a hole over 150 meters across. 80% of the city is under water up to 6 meters deep. The entire city is without electrical power or water supply. It’s estimated that it will be 9–12 weeks before they can even get rid of the water, much less get the city habitable. Interstate 10 is broken chunks of floating concrete; there’s no route into the city for trucks and other major vehicles. Mississippi reports at least 110 dead; Louisiana hasn’t even begun counting—but there are bodies floating in the water-and-sewage filled streets. It’s estimated that up to 100,000 people were unable or unwilling to leave the city. The death toll could be in the tens of thousands by the time it’s all over. The official message is simple: everyone must leave New Orleans.

The Red Cross has around 40,000 people in emergency shelters. Another 25,000 are going to be sleeping in the Houston Astrodome. They won’t be going home any time soon, as once the water is drained from the streets every building will have to be checked for structural soundness and shored up; every sewer line will need to be inspected. Then, of course, there will be the electrical infrastructure to replace, and the leaking gas lines to fix. In the mean time, some of the people left alive in the city are looting. Police are finding it hard to stop them, what with meters-high piles of debris that they have to cut through with chainsaws even to be able to patrol on foot.

So the residents of New Orleans who evacuated might get to go home to a ruined shell of a home with no electricity, by Christmas if they’re lucky. But right now, the water’s still rising… the Army engineers who were trying to repair the levees have been forced to abandon the city. The National Guard is facing the problem that most of its members were shipped out to Iraq to make up for low troop numbers, so the city is basically lawless at this point.

The New Orleans aquarium is gone; sealions are wandering the empty space where it used to be. The President’s Casino is missing too. The public library is paper maché. Boats weren’t safe either, with an 8 meter wall of water hitting the coast.

It’s not just New Orleans either. The BBC have a photograph of an oil rig that was smashed into the Cochrane Bridge in Mobile, Alabama. Most of Mobile is apparently without electricity too. Biloxi, Mississippi is without electricity, water and sewerage.

Damage estimates so far are around $25 billion, it’ll probably be the worst hit for the insurance industry ever. Since the worsening storms over the last few years had already brought many insurance companies close to bankruptcy, I imagine a few will collapse this year.

2004’s hurricane season was close to the worst ever. This year’s hurricane season is only half over and has already surpassed it. It appears that the severity of hurricanes may be directly linked to global warming, while the frequency of them is rising with the natural periodic rise in ocean surface temperature. Combine the two and you have a deadly combination. Katrina was more than 300 km across, and meteorologists say things could have been much worse. If you think the Kyoto protocol would harm the US economy, that’s nothing compared to what a decade of steadily-worsening hurricanes will do to it.

Now let’s set the wayback machine to February 2005:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified millions of dollars in flood and hurricane protection projects in the New Orleans district.

Chances are, though, most projects will not be funded in the president’s 2006 fiscal year budget to be released today.

In general, funding for construction has been on a downward trend for the past several years, said Marcia Demma, chief of the New Orleans Corps’ programs management branch.

In 2001, the New Orleans district spent $147 million on construction projects. When fiscal year 2005 wraps up Sept. 30, the Corps expects to have spent $82 million, a 44.2 percent reduction from 2001 expenditures.

Of course, all the levee construction in the world wouldn’t have saved New Orleans from this disaster—but it might have reduced the death toll and damage a bit. But hey, at least we all got our wartime tax cuts, right?

Will this tragedy be enough to silence the people who say that everything is OK, that global warming is a myth, that it’s a good idea to send the National Guard to Iraq, that we should keep cutting spending on infrastructure and emergency planning so we can finance a war and still have tax cuts?

I’m betting it won’t. They’ll keep shrieking their denails, and ultimately they’ll get away with it because their beliefs are so much more palatable than the unpleasant reality. I predict that the Climate Change Science Program and NASA’s studies of climate change will still get their budget cut next year. Why even study whether global warming might be causing these disasters, when you can just choose to believe it isn’t?

And remember, this is not a partisan issue. Democrats supported the major budget cuts for the US Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, and the cancellation of a study into what would happen if a hurricane hit the city. Democrats voted for the war in Iraq. When the Senate voted 95-0 against the Kyoto protocol on the grounds that it would result in economic harm to US industry and would exclude some nations (Senate Resolution 98 in 1997), those voting included John Kerry and Ted Kennedy.

New Orleans in particular is a problem people have known about for a long time. It was just waiting to happen, like the big earthquake in San Francisco, or Mount Rainier showering Seattle with ash and red hot debris. The big question in my mind is whether people will learn, or whether they’ll carry on as before and build a New New Orleans right where the last one was. Either way, I never got to see New Orleans, and now I never will.