Viewpoint: Hurricane Katrina's grim warning

A friend said to me the other day: “Nature always wins.” The truth of that statement is obvious when we contemplate the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

Television has shown us what remains of New Orleans and confronted us with the roving gangs of armed thugs who have been looting open stores and assaulting the helpless trying to survive the hurricane’s aftermath.

As Mike Ruppert, publisher of From the, put it: “This behavior is not new. What is new—but is now dying—is our enshrined belief that there were to be no consequences of our reckless consumption and destruction of the ecosystem. What is now dying a horrible death is America’s grotesque global arrogance, brutality and cupidity.”

Many were wondering why the National Guard did not promptly appear to stem the tide of looting. Nancy Lessin, of Military Families Speak Out, said: “The numbers we have are that there are 11,000 National Guard personnel from Louisiana, of whom about 3,000 are in Iraq with most of the heavy equipment. This includes generators and high-water and other vehicles which could assist with the rescue effort.”

High-water vehicles? What in the world would you do with those in arid Iraq? Thanks a lot, George.

Most of America still believes we can go on gorging ourselves on resources, like a heavy hog at the trough, and nothing adverse will result. Yet, some still deny any climate change is happening or that storms like Katrina are becoming more frequent and more powerful.

One of the big reasons New Orleans was so vulnerable to the hurricane was that much of the wetlands, which provided a kind of barrier between it and the sea, have gradually been diminished. For more than a century, we have been impeding the flow of the Mississippi River, preventing alluvial soil from moving to the river delta.

Columnist Molly Ivins, writing on, said: “But in addition to long-range consequences of long-term policies like letting the [Army] Corps of Engineers try to build a better river than God, there are very real short-term consequences, as well. It is a fact that the Clinton administration set some tough policies on wetlands, and it is a fact that the Bush administration repealed those policies ordering federal agencies to stop protecting as many as 20 million acres of wetlands.

“Last year, four environmental groups cooperated on a joint report showing the Bush administration’s policies had allowed developers to drain thousands of acres of wetlands,” Ivins wrote.

One of the authors of that report commented: “There’s no way to describe how mindless a policy that is when it comes to wetlands protection.” The chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, however, brushed aside the study as “highly questionable,” and said “Everybody loves what we’re doing.”

That policy is believed to have contributed to the increased storm surge that hammered the Crescent City. A federal task force began restoring wetlands in 1990, but had to stop in 2003 when President Bush reversed his policy of protecting the wetlands. It was said that every two miles of wetland between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico reduces a storm surge by 6 inches.

Additionally, the matter of money is obviously important. Congress appropriated several million dollars for flood control measures in and around New Orleans. But, as Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, La., said in June of last year: “It appears that the money has been moved to the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq.”

Which brings up another relevant issue: FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Agency—is being dismantled and absorbed into the new Department of Homeland Security. On top of that, Homeland Security is being oriented toward protection against terrorism and not toward dealing with natural disasters.

Watching from afar, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez remarked: “It is incredible. The government had no evacuation plan … the first power in the world, and it left its own population adrift.”

The New Orleans Times-Picayune observed: “No one can say they didn’t see it coming. Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.”

National Public Radio reported that an editorial in The New Orleans Times-Picayune called President Bush to fire all the top FEMA officials.

Experts are puzzled as to why help was so inadequate and so slow in arriving. Clare Rubin, an emergency management consultant, told Reuters: “The scenario of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was well-anticipated, predicted and drilled around.”

Last year, more than 40 federal, state, local and volunteer organizations carried out a five-day simulation, code-named Hurricane Pam, during which they faced an imaginary storm that destroyed more than half-a-million buildings in New Orleans and forced evacuation of a million residents.

At the time, Ron Castleman, regional director for FEMA, said: “We made great progress this week in our preparedness efforts.” In the real storm, FEMA’s first shipment of supplies were all designed for use against chemical attack, including anti-anthrax drugs.

But a larger lesson looms for the rest of us from all this. It hints at what may lie ahead. Oil industry analyst Jan Lundberg estimates the country has lost between 20 percent and 25 percent of its energy supply. Ruppert believes most of it will not be regained.

Two other significant developments came out of this tragedy: Saudi Arabia finally has admitted it cannot increase production, and the Energy Information Administration revealed that global demand for oil had been surpassing supply for several months before the hurricane. Nature is taking an amplified payback.

What will be the effect on energy production in the Gulf region? This is a critical question for the entire nation. Getting oil from the Gulf to the remainder of the country has four chief components: drilling and production; pipeline to shore; refinery capacity; and, finally, delivery to the nation at large.

The oil companies face a monumental challenge in trying to reorganize and restart their operations on the Gulf Coast. A large number of their drilling rigs are either sunk, tipped over or drifted out of position.

As one researcher said: “How will the oil companies even find their workers or tell them where to report for work? Where will the workers live? Where will they buy groceries? How will they get to and from work if the gasoline they’re supposed to produce isn’t there?”

Another concern is that the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port [LOOP] is more seriously damaged than the national press has let on. This is the point where the mammoth supertankers from the Mideast and elsewhere formerly unloaded their cargos of precious oil. What does that portend, not only for gasoline supplies, but for winter heating oil and natural gas?

Ruppert and other oil experts believe that New Orleans will not be rebuilt to any significant degree and that pre-Katrina production levels of energy will not be restored. Ruppert said: “The infrastructure is gone, the people are gone, and the U.S. economy will be on life support very, very quickly. If people are griping at $5 gasoline, what will they do when it’s $8? $10? Start shooting (the wrong people)? How difficult is it to rebuild in that kind of social climate? And if U.S. oil production does not soon exceed pre-Katrina levels, then the U.S. economy is doomed anyway.”

The time is now to begin a Manhattan Project-sized endeavor to switch over to fuel cell, bio-diesel and ethanol-driven vehicles. That’s, “Now.” We saw what happened because of the federal hesitation with Hurricane Katrina.

The federal money, energy and war policies propping up and lining the pockets of the oil industry must be converted to renewable fuels. ASAP.

Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this editorial.

From the Sept. 7-13, 2005, issue

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