Go to Top

Hurricanes Create a Wave of Issues

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swirled out of the tropics to devastate the Gulf Coast, but the greatest damage from those storms could come from unwise choices in their aftermath.

Rita, which struck Texas and Louisiana, and Katrina, on the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, could be called “normal” hurricanes, extraordinary in power but typical in effect: Buildings battered by wind and scoured by storm surge; boats pushed into treetops; victims swept away without a trace. Katrina did greater damage; the wasteland it left on the Mississippi-Alabama shore looks just like the photos from Hurricane Camille in 1969.

New Orleans was different. There, Katrina spawned an epic disaster rivaled only a few times in American history. It will be remembered with the San Francisco earthquake (1906), the Galveston hurricane (1900), the Chicago fire (1871) and perhaps Pearl Harbor (1941) and 9/11 (2001).

New Orleans walked into its disaster step by ill-advised step. The city’s protective levee system failed just as its designers expected in the face of a storm of Katrina’s size. An incomplete evacuation left large numbers of people in danger when the levees broke. Apredictable communications breakdown in the storm’s immediate aftermath made it impossible to warn most of these people that their city was being inundated, or to get them out before that happened. Vast shelters of last resort were undersupplied and underpoliced. In fact, law and order broke down across the city. And the help that was available was initially so poorly directed that the federal government’s head of emergency management was all but fired on live television.

Rita was a comparative success story. Casualties were minimized by one of the largest evacuations in history, an estimated 3 million people. But for uncounted masses, the evacuation was a nightmare of gridlocked highways and empty gas tanks. Rita’s biggest casualty count may come in some future storm, if people soured by the evacuation experience this time remain in harm’s way next time.

Our country always has recovered relatively quickly from disasters. Individual lives may be damaged and disrupted, sometimes forever, but in the big picture, the United States tends to bounce back stronger than ever from even its worst setbacks.

In most respects, this also should prove true of this year’s storms. Much of the central Gulf Coast will go through the familiar drill of housing the homeless, clearing the rubble, rebuilding the shoreline.

But the situation in and around New Orleans is disconcerting. There, the crisis was so huge, the preparation and the initial response so botched on so many levels, that there is a risk that logic will be pumped out with the floodwaters from the city.

Two days after Katrina came ashore, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was asked by a suburban Chicago reporter whether it would be wise to spend billions of dollars rebuilding New Orleans in its vulnerable, below-sea-level location. “That doesn’t make sense to me,” he replied. Hastert’s comment was perfectly reasonable but politically untenable. He quickly backed away amid howls of protest, none louder than that of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat. “To kick us when we’re down and destroy hope, when hope is the only thing we have left, is absolutely unthinkable for a leader in his position,” the governor said in a televised press conference.

President Bush probably had Hastert’s experience in mind when, a few weeks later, he promised to “do what it takes” to rebuild New Orleans. The money, said the president, should come from unspecified cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. The president called for the reconstruction to be conducted in “a sensible, well-planned way,” but he did not address the question of just how much reconstruction is sensible. It will not be easy to squeeze great sums of money from a federal budget that already consists mostly of nondiscretionary expenses such as Social Security payments, debt service and, as far as the administration is concerned, the military.

No disaster in American history has done long-term damage to the country’s economic and physical strength. But extravagant promises and ill-considered policies elicited by the nightly presentation of the suffering of storm victims just might. Of course we have to help the victims of the storms recover, and we will. But we also have to face the tough issues that Katrina and Rita put in front of us. These include: Understanding the merits and the limits of evacuations. With less than 48 hours’ notice, hundreds of thousands of people heeded instructions to leave New Orleans and other vulnerable areas along the Gulf Coast. Countless lives were saved as a result. Traffic flowed smoothly, and as Katrina approached the shoreline late on that Sunday night of Aug. 28, the roads were open. By any reasonable measure, the evacuation was a success. But tens of thousands remained behind. They were disproportionately very poor, very sick or very old. Amid the finger-pointing, these facts remain:

  • No federal agency had any way to move these people.
  • It is not clear whether, with better planning and greater resources, the city and state governments could have moved most of these people. Even if hundreds or thousands of buses had been available, who would have driven them? How far would they need to have gone to reach safety? How many return trips could those buses and drivers have made in the available time, especially when major highways were converted to operate only in one direction, away from the city?

Texas officials called for a mass evacuation when Rita was more than two days away and still on course to directly strike Galveston and Houston. Although only residents of the more vulnerable areas of metropolitan Houston were ordered to leave, the recent images of Katrina probably prompted thousands from throughout the region to take to the roads. There was no coordinated effort to phase the movement of people in a way that would have let those closer to the coast leave the area before residents of inland neighborhoods clogged the highways. A series of massive traffic jams was the result. Many would-be evacuees gave up and returned to their homes. Mere luck, in the form of a last-minute shift that took Rita to the east, prevented a possible catastrophe along the Texas coast. Without effective evacuation plans, people are going to die needlessly in hurricane zones. Katrina showed that these people are likely to be disproportionately poor and infirm.

If we cannot evacuate the poor, the ill and the aged from danger zones ahead of a storm, does it make sense to put housing and other facilities serving those populations in those zones? This will be one of the key issues governing just what kind of city New Orleans will be when it is rebuilt. But while New Orleans’ geography creates problems unique to that city, the danger of incomplete evacuation is acute in other areas as well. There are poor, vulnerable populations in exposed neighborhoods of metropolitan Miami and the Tampa Bay area. I also worry about parts of Jacksonville, Fla.; Charleston, S.C.; and of course, Houston. There is even a risk in New England cities such as New Haven and New London, Conn., and Providence, R.I. If you doubt what can happen in these northern locales, you might want to read about the devastating 1938 hurricane that tore across Long Island and southern New England at www.geocities.com/hurricanene/hurr1938.htm. Giving priority to other, more pressing, needs for preparedness dollars. Allowing New Orleans and its environs to soak up every available resource would be a mistake. This will be especially true if we have to spend extravagantly to try to ensure the safety of hundreds of thousands of people in that dangerous below-sea-level basin where, rationally, they should not be housed in the first place. The rest of the country has needs, too. Tropical Storm Allison killed 22 people and did $5 billion in damage when it dropped up to 26 inches of rain in a single day on Houston in June 2001. Houston is a much bigger city than New Orleans, and Allison was not the first such deluge to hit that region. Does it make sense to shortchange flood control projects in Houston to waterproof the Big Easy? Or should we focus our New Orleans infrastructure spending on making it easier to get people out of town before a big storm and to restore essential services afterward, so we can have some money left over for Houston and other places?

Spreading our energy infrastructure.

With our offshore drilling rigs and terminal facilities and onshore refineries concentrated in the Gulf region, we are overly vulnerable to disruptions such as those wrought by Hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Katrina and Rita in 2005. Of course, we can only drill for oil and gas where the oil and gas happens to be, and there are a lot of places with fragile nearby shorelines where offshore drilling is either controversial or unwise. But our energy has to come from someplace. Either we diversify the regions in which we drill it, unload it, refine it and distribute it, or we leave ourselves vulnerable to major problems. Somebody, someplace in this country, is going to have to accept some new facilities. But we are a society that chants “not in my back yard” even to the prospect of windmills off the New England coast. Soon we will be talking about new refineries, new pipelines, new drilling rigs and new terminals where tankers can unload crude oil, gasoline and liquefied natural gas. This is not going to be easy.

Allowing market forces to work during a crisis.

After a summer in which energy supply lines were already stretched taut, the severe hurricane damage could have caused those lines to snap. But the “energy shortage” that followed the recent storms is the story of the dog that did not bark. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, five days after Katrina came ashore, I drove from New York to Florida down Interstate 95 in near-record time. On what should have been a trafficjammed holiday, the highways were wide open and the gas stations mostly well-supplied. Some drivers probably heeded calls from their governors to stay home and conserve. I suspect more simply responded to the fact that gasoline had spiked to about $3.20 per gallon, up about one-third from a week earlier.

The quick action by gas station operators to raise prices, along with measures by the Bush administration to relax air pollution rules to allow rapid expansion of gasoline imports, kept us from seeing 1970s-style gasoline shortages and waiting lines. Apart from a few brief and scattered instances of panic buying, if you needed gasoline following Katrina, it was there. You might not get the exact grade or brand you wanted, but you could drive if driving was important enough to you.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. Consumers and elected officials who never took Economics 101 were outraged that dealers suddenly charged $3.20 or more for gasoline that was already on hand, produced at much lower prices, before the storm struck. More than 30 state attorneys general reportedly announced investigations into the sudden price rise. Afew weeks later, gas shortages were widespread in Houston as the entire city abruptly sought to fill its gas tanks and leave town. Apparently many households packed as much as they could and took more than one vehicle in caravans out of town — or, at least, onto the jammed freeways. Gas station owners for the most part sold their inventories at pre-storm prices, then shut down and waited for resupply that was slow to come. Would Houstonians have been better off if prices had risen sharply as the storm approached, encouraging families to take only one vehicle? There is reason to believe that a price spike would have left more fuel available for those who had to have it, while cutting down on the traffic jams.

Memo to attorneys general: If people know that a commodity they need is either going to rise sharply in price or may soon be unavailable, they stampede to buy it right away, whether they need it immediately or not. This quickly empties the stores that sell the commodity.

In the wake of Katrina, with gasoline readily available in his state, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, a Republican (doesn’t that mean he should know better?), issued a solemn statement saying: “When we hear of 75- to 90-cent price spikes within two days, or reports that surcharges are being tacked onto consumers’ fuel costs, then it is our duty to investigate.” He darkly threatened prosecutions for price gouging.

He just might get some hapless gas station owner, somewhere in Florida, to plead guilty to a criminal charge for gouging. This will allow Crist to make an example and to get some headlines. But according to Crist’s own official Web site, Florida law does not consider a price increase to be gouging if it is in line with “national and international market trends.” It makes no sense to have state attorneys general across the country second-guess an entire industry’s response to a serious supply disruption, particularly when that reaction kept a critical commodity available when needed.

Recognizing that insurance policies mean what they say.

Standard homeowners insurance policies exclude coverage for flood. The exclusion is prominently disclosed in most cases. That did not stop Mississippi’s attorney general and a number of private attorneys from trying to force insurers to cover Katrina flood losses that they never undertook to cover, and for which they never collected premiums. Critics called the insurance companies’ flood exclusion “unconscionable.” What actually is unconscionable is the attempted raid on insurance company treasuries by state officials and the plaintiffs’ bar on a “you got it, we want it” principle. The courts most likely will throw out the suits against the insurance companies. But if they don’t, federal preemption will be in order, lest the entire insurance market break down.