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RIVER LIFE

Five years After Katrina: Where Do We Go From Here?

On August 29, 2005–five years ago last Sunday–hurricane Katrina made landfall just east of New Orleans.

The storm caused thousands of deaths, billions of dollars in property damage, uprooted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and, very likely, forever changed the ways we think about government’s responsibilities
and responses to disaster.

The immediate aftermath of the storm shocked many across the country and around the world. Administrative and policy responses continue to this day, as the region continues the long term task of rebuilding itself.

As might be expected the fifth anniversary of the storm has been the occasion for a great deal of reflection and analysis, of uneven quality and decidedly mixed perspective.  Some focus on human dramas, some on ecological impact, while others see the future of the American city, for better or for worse, in what happens in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

Some of the best of these analyses are:

  • an editorial from the Merced (CA) Sun-Star that correctly points out that cities in flood-prone areas such as New Orleans and Sacramento must reduce their urban footprint and revise their land use policies in order to even hope for sustainability;
  • a PBS NewsHour segment analyzing the new flood protection system being created for southeast Louisiana;
  • a section on Our Amazing Planet highlighting the connection between Mississippi River management and coastal erosion
  • a piece published by Reuters and written by a Tulane water law expert connecting the future of the city to the future of the coastline
  • a summary of five key issues still facing the region (includes comments from readers which are themselves illustrative of the issue’s complexity)
  • a personal account that reminds us of the human impacts that are, and must remain, an important part of our considerations

Each of these links offers important insights, and they areby no means the only good analyses available. Frankly, they are included here as a slightly random list, culled from a “Google Alerts” string compiled over the past week.  Serious, systematic study of the “lessons from Katrina” is a major undertaking worthy of inclusion in a number of academic courses and professional practices ranging from civil engineering, to public policy, to art and literature.

I feel that the questions of sustainable communities and rivers that are being worked out in New Orleans make that region the  “canary in the coal mine” for a host of centrally important issues:  urban vitality; ecosystem restoration; the relationships between a continental river system and the ocean into which it flows; the development of multifunctional landscapes that can meet several needs simultaneously–energy development and ecosystem services for example; the appropriate understanding of “natural” and “human” systems, with parallel analysis of what constitutes a “natural disaster” versus the role of human culpability.  All of these are “wicked problems” that require new ways of thinking, new administrative structures, and new forms of cooperation in order for successful responses to emerge.

“The new normal” is a phrase that gets bandied about a lot.  Variously it refers to scenarios of climate change, to the difficulties of achieving public goals in a shrinking (or at least not expanding rapidly) economy, to the difficulties of even defining public goals in a polarized, toxic political atmosphere.

I would argue–and will argue in postings at various times in the future–that the future intersections of rivers, landscapes, and communities are being enacted in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, and that if we want to act sustainably in the “new normal,” many of the most important lessons are taking place there.  The world has a lot to learn from New Orleans, and a lot to teach, as well.

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One Comment

  1. Mark GormanSeptember 7, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Very well put, Patrick. We might also look at the recent flooding in Pakistan along the Indus River and the causes – they very much parallel what’s historically happened along the Mississippi River.

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