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Author: George Bugliarello
This is the second issue of The Bridge in the past year devoted to disasters caused by forces in our environment. The summer 2005 issue was focused on the Indian Ocean tsunami, and this issue is focused on Hurricane Katrina. As human populations continue to grow in areas vulnerable to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, fires, and landslides, we can expect that the effects of disasters will also be more severe. In the face of enormous natural forces, prevention is seldom possible, but with rational planning and a collective will, we can mitigate damages and losses.
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami showed the consequences of gaps in global warning systems, the absence of local warning systems and evacuation plans, and inadequate or nonexistent codes and regulations to strengthen structures and infrastructures. The tsunami also showed the enormous challenges of providing relief after a disaster has struck. Before Katrina, New Orleans had trusted in its flawed containment structures and its good luck to withstand the most powerful hurricanes. The lack of coordinated city, state, and federal policies undermined emergency responses to Katrina and the evacuation of New Orleans, which left hundreds of thousands stranded.
Many important lessons have been learned from these and other disasters. First, realistic plans must be made in advance to ensure the adequacy of defenses and to ensure that everyday services can be restored as soon as possible. Second, decision making at all levels must be rapid and to the point in an emergency. Third, the population must have accurate information and clear directions for action. Finally, major disaster mitigation, restoration, and recovery require the intervention of organizations with the logistical capacity to address very large-scale problems, usually beyond the capabilities of local jurisdictions. Unlike the well known dictum, “think globally, but act locally,” a major disaster may be local, but the response must be global.
Engineers and scientists must not only provide much needed expertise, but must also advocate decision making based on dispassionate assessments and realistic long-range views. The papers in this issue address some aspects of the Katrina disaster and suggest policies for mitigating the consequences of future disasters. Brian Wolshon, a traffic engineer at Louisiana State University, analyzes the evacuation of New Orleans and demonstrates the importance of proactive traffic management to facilitate large-scale evacuations. Billy Ball, senior vice president of transmission planning and operations for Southern Company, describes the restoration of the multistate electric-power infrastructure in the Gulf region and suggests improvements in emergency planning for the future. Robert Dean, a coastal engineer, describes wetland formation and the history of wetland-system losses in the Mississippi Delta and outlines some options for future wetlands restoration. He argues not only for restoration of the Louisiana wetlands system, but also for a program to identify vulnerable areas throughout the country.
Gerald Galloway, an expert in water policy, decries the lack of a national policy for coastal zones to provide direction for coordinated long-term plans for the Gulf region. Paul Mlakar of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) describes the progress of the USACE task force analyzing the behavior of hurricane protection structures. Danny Reible (an environmental health engineer) and his colleagues describe the toxics and contaminants in the floodwaters that inundated New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and discuss the pros and cons of various criteria for making uniform, equitable decisions about rebuilding specific areas and structures.
Inefficiencies, unrealistic promises, and wishful thinking can add to the difficulties and expense of rebuilding habitats and economies. In New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, recovery has become a political balloon, with promises being made before rational analyses have been completed. Many fundamental questions remain to be answered. If another major catastrophe hits our nation, how much can we realistic-ally afford for mitigation and recovery? Should we continue to build or rebuild in proven high-risk areas? How can we create safer communities and infrastructures for the future? The answers to these and many other questions should guide the development of policies for future disasters.