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How a City Slowly Drowned Essay

This case summarizes events preceding the Hurricane Katrina, which was one of the worst natural catastrophes in the modern history of the USA. It raises questions about the lack of reasonable prevention and preparation actions due to flimsy structure and management of the responsible organizations and persons, invalidity and inconsistence of their actions and incapability of making the decisions in a timely manner. As a result of the unstructured and incoherent activities, we could observe several ineffective and costly attempts to mitigate floods and hurricanes. In the beginning the local officials, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and “White Houses past and present always seem penny-wise and pound-foolish” because of the chain of the wrong decisions, which is indicated by Republican Sen. David Vitter’s words “Instead of spending millions now, we are going to spend billions later” (Grunwald and Glasser). One of the key actors in this case who made the most important decisions was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The agency had a budget formulated by the earmarks. The Corps in Louisiana were getting more money for the protection from hurricanes than any other state, yet, the actions were not taken care of until the very last moment. In the late 19th century the Corps, were holding to “levees-only” policy.

So it is not surprising, that the U.S. Army Corps have implemented the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet project in 1965, which increased the storm wave when Katrina hit New Orleans (Grunwald and Glasser). This is an evidence of poorly thought-out decision made by this agency. The Corps haven’t been interested in hurricanes until Betsy hit the city. No wonder that evaluation of the threats was again commissioned to the Corps instead of another research institute or agency. It becomes obvious that the Corps had failed their mission, but still had the authority for the implementation. Other key actors of the case are politicians, particularly the local officials and the Congress. Local officials didn’t want to spend money on expensive but effective projects, which could have saved the lives and infrastructure of the city if implemented on time. It is though surprising that there has been shown no considerable interest of the local population or non-governmental organizations in prevention and mitigation of the disasters. However, it is important to mention the concern of the local scientists who tried to warn the officials about the approaching danger. LSU professor Joe Suhayda tried to push the Corps to upgrade the city’s defenses, but was told to choose the “stepwise process” which put up the solution of the problem on the shelf (Grunwald and Glasser).

On the other side, the community and its leaders should have put greater pressure on the local officials and the federal government to make changes in the law and take actions before the hurricane hit New Orleans, make them take care of the worst case scenario, not the Category 3 hurricanes. It would also be a good option if NGOs could make an independent analysis of the environmental situation in the area, involve the experienced specialists from other countries to the projects, and get their advice before letting the Corps implement anything in the area. There was no performance measurement of the problem handling. In my opinion, there should have been some agencies or private companies hired by the government to check and follow up the actions taken by the Corps. Local population was not getting information on how efficiently tax payers’ money was spent. No visible actions had been taken by the city mayor, who was responsible for the social welfare and protection of human lives. The main problem of the politicians and the governmental agencies in this case was the model they chose to make their decisions. In fact, they chose incremental (branch) method instead of the root method described by Lindblom in his article (“The Science of “Muddling Through”).

Branch method does not give opportunity to look for alternative solutions; decisions are made based on assumptions, and there is no overall strategy. The decision can be made even without an agreement on objectives. On the contrary, the root method that is although more for an ideal world would make a better effect. It combines such positive features like being more theory oriented and assuming complete knowledge. It gives possibility of making a choice among several alternative solutions, not the first available and etc. One good example of the decision made according to the branch method in this case, would be the construction of the lock for the New Orleans Industrial Canal. This project was justified only economically, “without prior values or objectives” (Lindblom) and would never be approved by the “regular decision process” (Grunwald and Glasser). This suggests that if the root method was implemented, the decision would not be accepted, because, the participants of the discussion had some agreement, which made it possible to make a decision in favor of approval of the shipping lock to be built.

However, if the root method was applied, there would have to be an overall agreement based on in depth analysis. Another reason not to choose the branch method is that it does not sufficiently rely on theory. We can observe that in the case when the Corps decided to build the shipping canal to the Port of New Orleans. Nobody thought of the consequences of this decision. The construction only aggravated the situation when Katrina hit Louisiana, because there hadn’t been any research or experiments carried out. The politicians were choosing this method, because it seemed safer for them. They did not have to take a big responsibility and could delegate it to the lower-level agencies. In the branch method there is a “watchdog” system that should keep the values in balance (Lindblom). For example, Former Democratic senator Bennett Johnston Jr. was criticizing the Corps for spending too much money. But later on, we see that he had his own pet project, a $2 billion effort to subdue the Red River between the Mississippi and Shrevport, LA which he pushed through the Congress.

This method is more adaptive to internal and external changes, so the Corps and the politicians could make any micro changes they wanted. “In 1982, the Orleans Levee District urged the Corps to lower its design standards to provide more realistic hurricane protection and also switched to 100-year storm protection from 200-year plan to save money” (Grunwald and Glasser). The whole tragedy can be described just by the quote of Vic Landry, a Corps engineer “Let’s hope it doesn’t come on our watch” (Grunwald and Glasser). This was the overall point of view of the responsible parties of this case. Basically, nobody wanted to soil himself and take a responsibility to solve the problem as one unit. Essentially, if the root method had been chosen for making decisions, it would have a more positive effect on the situation. When the cost is the human lives you should look for the best opportunities to prevent the problem, not the first satisficing solution available, you should find the most efficient ways to get a result, not the cheapest. You need a deeper view of the problem. You need to be able to see the whole picture, identify the problem and find the alternative solutions to the problem.

Congress was well informed that the US did not have a water resources policy and could actually pass the law or the bill to have it. If there was a water resources policy for prevention of natural disasters, that would also decrease the caused damage. In this case, the Corps would have to come up with a better plan to prevent or at least to mitigate the disaster. The Corps had already faced a tragedy of previous hurricanes and should have been more prepared to this situation. If there was better research, it would be clear, that if the Category 3 or higher hurricane happens, the lakes in the area would flood New Orleans. That would expose the problematic issues and give an opportunity to establish fiscal responsibility, so there wouldn’t be any over limits of the budget. Beyond all doubt, if there was one center to control the processes, to plan the mitigation actions and etc. there wouldn’t be any projects that contradict each other. The structures built for flood were not corresponding to the structures built for storm and vice versa, only worsen the consequences. Obviously, it takes too long for the politicians to make any decision and it takes even longer to change laws.

Besides, some decisions were made blindly, without any forecasts for future. For example, there was a cut in budget of the Corps in 2002 by President Bush which as a result impacted New Orleans hurricane defenses. However, this kind of decision should have been made only after in depth analysis. What is really demanded is the change in the structures of the governmental agencies. Their actions should not depend on the decisions of the certain politicians that want to pass the particular projects for their own advantage which is not necessarily something positive for the social welfare. “The lock for the New Orleans Industrial Canal which cost $750 million was justified by predictions of increasing ship traffic, but traffic rapidly declined” (Grunwald and Glasser).

The process of getting funding from the government should be more complicated to stop squandering money of the tax payers. As French composer Hector Berlioz once said, “Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils” (Berlioz). I hope that the experience of lost time will teach the government and all responsible people to manage their resources properly and wisely, not to let American nation stay red-faced and homeless because of the wrong decisions and ambitions of certain people.

Reference list:
1. Michael Grunwald and Susan B. Glasser / How a City Slowly Drowned. The Washington Post, National Weekly Edition, October 17 to 23, (2005) pp. 6-10 2. Charles E. Lindblom “The Science Of ‘Muddling Through” (1959) 3. Letter written in November 1856, published in Pierre Citron (ed.) Hector
Berlioz. Correspondance générale (Paris: Flammarion, 1989) vol. 5, p. 390; Paul Davies About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) p. 214.

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