10/26/2011 05:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Houston's Levees Found Lacking


Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans was not only a monumental natural disaster, it was an epic man-made disaster as well.

A lot of decision making led to the magnitude of human devastation Katrina inflicted on the citizens of New Orleans. First, we allowed New Orleans to develop so portions of it were under sea level, then raised sea level via man-made climate change (which also warmed our oceans, increasing the odds for more intense hurricanes). We then expanded New Orleans' metropolitan area at the expense of the natural barrier that wetlands provide. We built levees not sufficient to handle the job now facing them and then fell short in our duty to maintain them.

Doesn't sound like a good plan when you look at it in hindsight. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Which brings us to Houston. In HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, reporter Mark Hertsgaard not only expands on the "New Orleans -- what were we thinking!?" theme, but also addresses some chilling ways we have still not learned our lesson:

Robert Bea, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and coauthor of a landmark National Science Foundation report on Katrina, identified three major U.S. cities -- Miami, Houston and Washington DC -- that are no better protected today than New Orleans was before Katrina. "In 2006 I went to Houston and found the very same problems we uncovered in New Orleans," Bea told me... If those levees [near Houston] were to fail, you'd take out two-thirds of the U.S. oil refinery capacity."

Washington D.C. -- our nations' capitol, for crying out loud! And two-thirds of our oil refinery capacity? OUCH!

And just in case you feel concerns about Houston facing a major hurricane are unfounded, keep this in mind: a month after Katrina, Hurricane Rita caused Houston such genuine worry that it led to evacuation of 2.5 million locals -- the largest evacuation in U.S. history.