Filed Under:  Opinion, Regional

Preventing the predictable

5th September 2012   ·   0 Comments

It’s been a tragic and trying week for Southeast Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Isaac unleashed days of torrential rains, heavy force winds and flooding.

For many, it was dark and hot as 95 percent of those in the storms wake lost power to their homes and offices. Hundred-year-old oaks littered the streets having fallen from their bases as they tried to stand up to the category 1 winds, crushing houses, pulling up sidewalks and tearing down power lines. Rivers ran through the streets, houses stood drowned as waters rose and frightened residents waited on roofs and in attics for rescue crews to whisk them from this disaster. It’s a very familiar story that conjures memories of disasters past.

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast leaving scores of residents without homes, lives lost, businesses shuttered and New Orleans submerged, some residents in low-lying areas that were inundated in Isaac’s passing are once again wondering what it will take for the coastal communities to be safe from such disasters.

Since the devastating storms of 2005 and the massive oil spill that poison communities and jeopardized the coastal ecosystem, the people of Southeast Louisiana have declared “No more!” hoping that local, state and federal agencies would be there in support. In New Orleans, that cry was heard and met with a $14.5 billion facelift of the levee system – the network of walls erected by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to insulate the city from rising tides yet proved during Katrina to lack the durability to withstand overflowing waters.

The newly overhauled system, however, complete with a so-called “Great Wall” – a $1.1 billion civil project that runs 1.8 miles long, 26 feet high, built to category 3 strength and touted to be the largest in American history which now protects New Orleans East, the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish – has proven to be worth its weight in federal dollars at least in the case of a category 1. Unfortunately for those living outside the Great Wall, communities such as those in La Place and Braithwaite, La, a category 1 proved too much for the current systems of protection to handle and once again raises questions about an issue with which all communities are familiar: Infrastructure.

As cities around the nation are increasingly devastated by disasters of their own – earthquakes, floods, fires and tornados – discussions about infrastructure investment and disaster preparation, planning and response should be the main topics of discussion, particularly with municipalities increasing reliance on federal aid to fund repairs after the avoidable damage is done.

According to recent reports, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund is down to $1.5 billion, which seems like a hefty amount until it has to be split among other areas with open major disaster declarations across the nation including several wildfires, severe storms, tornadoes and floods in addition to Hurricane Isaac, the latest natural event with disastrous effects.

Early estimates for overall public and private damage for Hurricane Isaac fall between $500 million to $2 billion as projected by disaster-modeling companies, according to information released by the Louisiana State Treasure’s office. The state treasurer also said that there could be delays in FEMA funding reaching Isaac-impacted areas due to Congress’ increased difficulty in passing emergency spending bills.

Being able to respond to a disaster is great, but being able to avoid or mitigate its effects are better. What if we build a system of preparedness instead of one of faulty levees? Instead of cities taking on disasters as they come and pushing the bill on to FEMA, what if cities planned and adapted for the troubles ahead – the challenges unique to their environments? What if part the funds to cover the costs of that estimated $500 million to $2 billion in damages were used to build a system of protection that would really keep communities safe? What if cities, communities and public leaders were to work together to come up with preventive measures to address predictable problems?

With technological advances such as crafts that fly to the moon, Mars and back, it’s puzzling to see cities submerged in the 21st century. There’s now a great wall protecting New Orleans. Can we build a wall to protect the rest of our communities?

This article originally published in the September 3, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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