09/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Still Fiddling While New Orleans Drowns

The fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is upon us, and New Orleans continues to slowly rebound, with a smaller footprint than before but abundant community spirit. But, alarmingly, its long-term predicament remains unchanged, and the opportunity the nation had to confront it has been mostly squandered.

I refer, of course, to the challenge of protecting the city and surrounding coastlines from hurricanes. Three centuries of experience have proven time after time this is a deadly serious risk. And time after time, various government agencies - from New Orleans's earliest colonial administrations to the Obama White House - have responded in a haphazard fashion, doing just enough to make people feel safe again, but not enough to prevent the next big disaster.

Barge in backyard
Barge in Lower 9th Ward, December 2005

The Katrina disaster was deeply ironic. Turns out America, the nation that tamed rivers and the continent, won World War II and emerged as the globe's lone superpower, couldn't build a floodwall. America, the nation of the mass media and instantaneous communication, couldn't figure out where the New Orleans Convention Center was, or deliver food and water a few blocks to the thousands of people gathered there. Post-K, there was reason to believe these outrages might force a reassessment of how the nation handles not just emergency response - what you do after disaster strikes - but prevention. The rapidly-eroding Louisiana coast seems like an outlier, but this is deceptive - climate change is going to raise the risks not just for coastlines (higher sea levels and - possibly - stronger storms) but for any area where rapid environmental shifts take place and communities built for yesterday's conditions suddenly find themselves under water, consumed by fire or afflicted by drought or other problems. New Orleans is, in this sense, an important test case.

But no such reassessment took place. Instead, the same institution that screwed this up the first time - the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was put in charge of the effort to protect New Orleans and the surrounding coastline. This was crazy and irresponsible, and the results were predictable. The Corps is building a $14 billion stopgap levee system, an upgrade to the old one that is certainly better than what was there before, but not nearly enough to protect the city from a Category 5 hurricane storm surge.

The Corps has been studying the options for bigger and better protection, and how to integrate it with efforts to restore the rapidly-eroding marshlands of south Louisiana, for four years. This is an ambitious project, and (in my view) an essential one. It should have been fast-tracked. It should have gotten some stimulus money. Instead it bogged down. . But there's nobody really calling the shots at the upper levels of government. It's not a national priority. President Obama says it is, and is creating a task force that may cut through some of the seemingly hopeless skein of red tape. So, we'll see. But given the fiscal and political pressures on the Obama administration and the severe bureaucratic inertia holding this thing back (which results from basic power arrangements between Congress, the Corps, and successive administrations) I'm skeptical.

This is human nature, you might say, the way government institutions work. We're always preparing for the last disaster. We don't anticipate the "black swans." But that's no longer an adequate excuse given what's at stake - not just a unique American city and cultural treasure, but the shape and structure of the American community in an era of change. Do shrug off these challenges - about which we know a great deal - and consign the vulnerable parts of the country to a slow attrition by disaster? Or do we learn from history, and science, and our own mistakes?