Fables of the Reconstruction

With a storm surge 80 miles wide and 30 feet high - and post-hurricane flooding inundating New Orleans after levees broke there, Katrina changed everything - much like 9/11 - when it hit the Gulf Coast on Aug.

Carlos David Mogollón

With a storm surge 80 miles wide and 30 feet high - and post-hurricane flooding inundating New Orleans after levees broke there, Katrina changed everything - much like 9/11 - when it hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. By now, the errors and mismanagement in preparations before and immediately afterward are well known. We provided two weeks of “After Katrina” special reports viewable on our website (key word: “Katrina” or “hurricane”).

Emergency preparations and response for Sept. 24’s Hurricane Rita, the lesser of the one-two punch to the nation’s midsection, were what we would have liked to have seen with Katrina, as nearly 2 million people evacuated Texas’ coastal areas prior to landfall in Texas near Lake Charles, La.

With over a thousand dead, Katrina registered as the country’s most destructive hurricane ever in economic costs. Insured losses likely will top $60 billion, but it could cost Gulf Coast states $120 billion more, according to federal projections. In addition to hundreds of thousands of people dislocated, the EPA estimates 1,223 drinking water systems in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were affected. The AWWA said public drinking water infrastructure damages alone likely would exceed $2.25 billion.

The water industry responded immediately. Dating to Sept. 1, we posted dozens of releases to our website from water and wastewater companies donating money, personnel and equipment. Those with affected facilities included ITT Industries, PPG, Nalco, Calgon Carbon, ABB and Veolia. Notable aid includes that of Thompson Pump, Zenon, Koch, Siemens, ITT, FLAWarn (a Florida utility emergency response alliance), and Miller and Anheuser Busch breweries, which pumped out millions of bottles/cans of water. CH2M Hill, Fluor, Bechtel and KBR won cleanup contracts. This magazine’s parent PennWell and, separately, Headworks Inc. (through the Houston Business Journal) also opened up job banks to hurricane victims. And WEF and AWWA both added related topics to upcoming conference themes.

Still, it’s difficult to get over the international embarrassment and shame of the plight of those left for days in New Orleans amid looting and lawlessness there and elsewhere in the confused absence of local, state and federal authority. Almost as bad is the Bush Administration’s post-event policy positioning. Yes, Congress immediately appropriated some $60 billion toward Katrina relief and guardedly announced investigations. Republicans balked, though, at the President’s committing the “full might and money of the federal government” to reconstruction in a speech Sept. 15, with some proposing cutting among other things the CDC to help pay for it.

Meanwhile, the Administration - much as it did with respect to intelligence laws after 9/11 - took advantage of the tragedy to attempt a rollback of environmental and other regulations, including requiring reporting of toxic spills every two years instead of yearly (see Sept. 23 online report: “National Environmental Trust says bad time for easing toxic spill rules”). At a time when some have called for a “Tennessee Valley Authority” effort for the region, this sends a bad signal. Such measures are not good for our environment, our country or our industry.

Let’s also not forget vulnerabilities exposed by the hurricanes. We’ve learned homeland security has just as much to do with emergency and disaster preparedness as any terrorist threat we may face. This is true if only because we’re more vulnerable to the latter in times of crisis. Resources, already taxed by ongoing military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, are stretched further. And combined economic vulnerabilities threaten foreign and domestic policy alike. Thus, it’s time we began rethinking our mission in Iraq. Those resources now more than ever are needed at home. Otherwise, I can only imagine the score on the next ASCE Report Card on America’s Infrastructure. Failing.

More in Infrastructure Funding