The greatest natural disaster in U.S. history. A major region of the country – the Gulf Coast – and one of the nation’s most important cities, New Orleans, shattered. Economic damage initially estimated at $25-30 billion but probably much more than that in the long term. More than a million people displaced from their jobs and their homes – many of them never to return. An estimated three million citizens without potable water and/or electric power. A loss of life that, when all the bodies are counted, may well exceed that of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined.

That is a brief executive summary of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, and the breaking of the levees protecting New Orleans, in the last three days of August and the first week of September. As of the evening of 6 September the situations in Biloxi, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, and other towns and cities in Southern Mississippi – which actually was hit harder by Katrina than New Orleans was – had more or less stabilized, a number of relief and repair crews were already on the scene, with more on the way, and the months-long process of repair, rebuilding, and recuperation had started. How long it would take for the area to get back to normal, though, however that nebulous word is defined, was anyone’s guess. Possibly the only thing certain was that the death toll would continue to climb as police and other first responders continued their grim house-by-house search for survivors, or for corpses. Eventually, though, later if not sooner, power would be restored, roads would reopen, and life would go on almost – but not quite – as before.

In New Orleans, the so-called City that Care Forgot, the situation was much worse. It would take several months, at least, before the levees could be fully repaired and the now highly contaminated flood waters could be pumped out of the stricken metropolis. And that would be the easy part. The difficult part would be the bulldozing of the hundreds of thousands of homes, businesses, and public buildings that were damaged beyond repair, the hauling away of possibly millions of tons of rubble, and then – possibly – the rebuilding of a storied city unlike any other in America.

The Clash of Opposing Realities

The courageous statements of New Orleans’s citizens and their political leaders notwithstanding, it still is by no means clear that the city can, should, and will be rebuilt. It certainly should not, and will not, be rebuilt as a carbon copy of the city destroyed by Katrina and the flood waters. Stronger and higher levees would be mandatory, as would be more, and more powerful, fail-safe pumping stations. Homes, churches, and businesses of all types as well as schools and other public buildings would have to be made of sturdier stuff and, insofar as possible, be able to withstand high winds and rising waters.

Even if that basic blueprint were followed to the letter it might not be enough to ensure the survivability of a “new” New Orleans. Engineers, geologists, and other hardnosed realists had been predicting for many years prior to Katrina that the city, much of which sits 10 feet or more below sea level, would eventually and inevitably succumb to the forces of nature. “A disaster waiting to happen” was the description frequently used. Meteorologists agree, and point out that global weather patterns of recent years indicate that more, and more violent, hurricanes are likely for the foreseeable future.

Those who are sentimentally attached to the Crescent City, and/or who have strong economic or political interests to protect, have a powerful counter-argument to offer – namely, that if New Orleans itself ceased to exist, a port of similar capacity and capability would have to be built to replace it. Almost 60 percent of all U.S. grain exports are shipped overseas through ports along the Gulf of Mexico, including 83.8 million tons shipped through the port of New Orleans in 2003 – which in 2001 generated $13.4 billion in revenue. (Data provided by the Financial Times, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the American Association of Port Authorities, and reported in the 5 September issue of the Washington Post.)

There also is an important albeit unquantifiable intangible factor to consider: Americans of all sizes, shapes, colors, and creeds simply do not like to surrender or to give in, particularly to the malevolent forces of either man or nature. When San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake in 1906 the citizens of that great city took for granted, as did their countrymen, that their only choice was to rebuild. The same was true of Chicago after the Great Fire, and of Johnstown after the flood. The same collective mindset united Americans after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and infused the national decision to repair and restore the Pentagon as soon as possible and, in New York City, to erect new and safer structures that would not replace the World Trade Center towers but serve as a living and fully operational memorial to them.

The building of new and more survivable U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, to replace the embassies bombed by terrorists was a political and diplomatic necessity, perhaps, but the decision to rebuild was approved by the vast majority of U.S. citizens. So were the repair and rebuilding of the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole after it was attacked, and almost sunk, during an October 2000 refueling stop in Aden, Yemen. A less proud and less determined Navy, and nation, might well have written off the severely damaged Cole as too costly to repair. Not so the U.S. Navy – which could safely assume in that time of distress that the executive and legislative branches of government, and the American people, would fully support the decision to rebuild.

Blame, Glory, and Consequences

One of the first and least helpful results of what was, after all, a long-expected natural disaster was the attempt – at all levels of government, and by the media – to point the finger of blame, always at someone else, not only for the alleged lack of foresight and preparation but also for the supposed failure (also at all levels of government) to respond quickly enough and with a massive flow of emergency supplies, consumables, and repair equipment. As First Responder in Chief, President Bush was an obvious target, as were DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Director Michael D. Brown. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin both demonstrated remarkable leadership qualities during the long ordeal (still not over), but the initial evidence suggests that neither the city of New Orleans nor the state of Louisiana was any better prepared to cope with Katrina than the federal government was.

The blame game undoubtedly will go on nonetheless, and may eventually result in some changes for the better. In any event, the obvious deficiencies in preparation and response should be measured against the many things that did not go wrong and against the truly heroic achievements of not hundreds but thousands of first responders and ad hoc volunteers who risked their own lives to save others and who kept the nation’s greatest catastrophe of modern times from becoming much worse than it was. The courageous young men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard, to take perhaps the most prominent example, proved again and again the validity of that gallant service’s reputation as the world’s premier lifesaving service.

Other agencies, public and private, responded in similar fashion. The American Red Cross covered itself in glory, as did the FEMA crews quickly assembled from throughout the country and deployed into the catastrophe’s treacherous heart of darkness. Law-enforcement, firefighting, and EMS (emergency medical services) agencies and individuals throughout Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi – augmented by their counterparts, and by utility crews, from many other states – worked prodigiously, and with admirable skill, to save their fellow citizens and restore order.

Other organizations and agencies, and millions of everyday citizens, from across the nation, joined the effort – as Americans always do in times of disaster – by donating goods, services, and money. Thousands of families opened up their homes to those who had been evacuated from the disaster area. Grade schools, high schools, colleges, and universities opened their doors to accommodate new students whose schools had been destroyed, and private businesses offered immediate employment to thousands of workers who were suddenly without jobs. It was, in those and certain other respects, the American version of England’s “finest hour.”

All of which ameliorates but does not change the fact that the United States was once again – as on 9/11 and, before that, on 7 December 1941 and many other times both before and since – struck a major blow for which it should have been much better prepared. The economic and human losses from Hurricane Katrina will continue to mount for the foreseeable future. It will be a long time, if ever, before the price of gasoline falls back to the pre-Katrina levels. The prices of other goods and consumables also are likely to rise. Many of those who fled New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulfport, and other cities are likely never to return. If a new New Orleans is built in the next decade or so, it may be a better, more secure, and perhaps even more important city (and port) than the old New Orleans. But it will never be the same city. The one that disappeared last week is truly, in Margaret Mitchell’s famous words, literally Gone With the Wind.

What Happens Next? A Few Recommendations

The deaths and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans will be remembered for many years as one of the greatest tragedies in American history. An even greater tragedy, though, would be not to use the lessons learned from Katrina to avoid similar, and perhaps worse, disasters in the future.

In the next several weeks and months there will be numerous authoritative reports and studies – and a few TV specials as well – dissecting the anatomy of Hurricane Katrina and detailing what happened when, where, how, and why, and in what sequence. Many of these lessons-learned analyses will be well-balanced and objective. Others will be politically partisan and tilted in favor of, or against, various types of remedial actions. All, or almost all, will prove useful in one way or another.

Katrina was a national tragedy of immense consequence, though, and must be considered in that light. To be as objective, as comprehensive, as useful, and as non-partisan as possible, therefore, requires a truly national approach. A good start, as Sen. Hillary Clinton has suggested, might be for the president to appoint a national commission such as that appointed to investigate the 9/11 terrorist attacks. To ensure objectivity the president might want to ask former Presidents Bush and Clinton to co-chair the new commission in the same bipartisan way they did the national and international fundraising effort to help the victims of last year’s tsunami.

The commission’s charter should not, however, be limited to determining the particulars of what happened before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina made landfall (near Buras, La., shortly after 6:00 a.m. on Monday, 29 August). That approach, as sensible as it might seem at first glance, would help the nation prepare for the next hurricane. But a much broader brush is needed. The commission’s goal should be more generic in nature and seek how to cope not only with the next Katrina but also with the next earthquake in California or Alaska and/or a massive tsunami engulfing Hawaii or Guam.

The development of workable – which also means affordable – contingency plans to prepare for and respond to natural disasters would be only half the task. The other half, which might be of exponentially greater importance, would entail the development of plans to prevent, prepare for, and/or respond to manmade disasters – terrorist attacks, in other words. After the 9/11 attacks President Bush requested, and Congress provided, billions and billions of dollars to prevent new terrorist attacks involving the use of commercial aircraft. The safeguarding of U.S. ports and waterways, which are arguably much more vulnerable both to terrorist attacks and to natural disasters, was sorely neglected, though, and FEMA has been seriously under funded for many years – which is one reason that undermanned and overburdened agency was perhaps less responsive than it might otherwise have been.

In the final analysis, what happens next will be up to the American people as a whole. Presidents, senators, and congressmen, governors, mayors, and county executives, and other elected officials at all levels of government are willing to lead, and usually will lead – if they are permitted to by their constituents. But the leaders of any group, business, organization, or nation can do only so much on their own initiative. Anything beyond that requires the support of those who follow.

James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.

Martin D. Masiuk

Martin (Marty) Masiuk is president and founder of International Media Representatives Inc. (IMR Group Inc.), which was established in 1986 as an American-based media representation firm for overseas, aerospace, and defense publications. In 1998, under the IMR Group, he established DomesticPreparedness.com, which has evolved into a highly trusted, and important information service for the multi-disclipline, multi-jurisdiction preparedness community. In 2014, he transitioned the DomPrep40 into the Preparedness Leadership Council to lessen the burden on and increase the effectiveness of operational preparedness professionals and help policy professionals make better-informed decisions. Prior to IMR Group, he served as an account representative for McGraw Hill’s Business Week and Aviation Week & Space Technology publications.

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