APS News

Inside the Beltway: The Avoidable Tragedy of New Orleans

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Each day when the sun finally sets over the Potomac, what Washington accomplished is a matter of priorities and politics. And it hinges on what two groups want: voters in general and campaign contributors in particular. Science is not even in the mix.

What happened in New Orleans last month in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is an archetypal example. It was no accident. It reflected more than two decades of federal Crescent City policies that had sacrificed science on the altar of political expediency.

A month ago, three days after the Bayou dikes gave way and the punch bowl that is New Orleans filled up with water from Lake Pontchartrain, President Bush did a one-on-one interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC’s Good Morning America. The President, in what will long be regarded as one of the rhetorical low points for an Administration that is guided by a tightly controlled public relations shop, said, “I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." He might as well have said that the earth is flat, Thomas Friedman’s bestseller notwithstanding.

There is ample bipartisan blame to go around, but unfortunately the Bush White House must accept most of it. It’s a rule of politics: When the worst natural disaster in the history of the nation occurs on your watch, even if prior administrations ignored the warning signs, in the public’s view 90% of the fault is yours–particularly if you didn’t assemble the right team.

Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Department charged with overseeing such domestic disasters, has scant credentials qualifying him for the position. Prior to taking over DHS, he had served as a United States Court of Appeals judge, a law partner in Latham and Watkins, special counsel for the Senate Whitewater Committee and Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the Justice Department.

And Michael Brown, the new Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who had direct line management responsibility for the Katrina catastrophe, has an even thinner résumé. Before he was appointed Deputy Director of FEMA in 2001, he had been a commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. He might have been a fine equestrian judge, but as Matt Stearns and Seth Borenstein of the Knight Ridder Newspapers observed, "there was little in Michael D. Brown's background to prepare him for the fury of Hurricane Katrina."

Still, these personnel failings pale in comparison to the wanton neglect of the detailed scientific reports of the last few years that had predicted just the sort of outcome southern Louisiana would suffer if it were hit by a category four hurricane like Katrina. In “Drowning New Orleans,” Mark Fischetti wrote in Scientific American in October 2001, “The boxes are stacked eight feet high and line the walls of the large, windowless room. Inside them are new body bags, 10,000 in all. If a big, slow-moving hurricane crossed the Gulf of Mexico on the right track, it would drive a sea surge that would drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water... Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes. Scientists at Louisiana State University, who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die.”

On June 8, 2004 a New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune, also published a lengthy article describing the devastating effects on the region that a major storm would cause. The article noted additionally that the Office of Management and Budget had repeatedly slashed funding for critically needed remedial work on the system of levees that protected the city.

No one in the White House and no one in a leadership position on Capitol Hill was paying much heed to the scientific studies and computer modeling that forecast the cataclysmic results of a category four hurricane. Instead, when Mike Parker, who directed the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke out in 2002 about the need for increased funding for the Corps’ work, the Bush Administration summarily dismissed him.

Perhaps scientists and engineers are too arrogant. Perhaps they do a bad job of communicating with public officials. Perhaps science is too complicated for policy makers to understand. Perhaps they don’t trust the analyses experts produce. Whatever the case, the tragedy of New Orleans points up the need for major changes in the way the United States manages its science and technology policy.

As a first step, the White House should take a cue from Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. Earlier this year, Bodman successfully lobbied Congress to create a new position of Under Secretary for Science within DOE in order to provide the Department with high-level management of its research portfolio. President Bush should follow Bodman’s lead and restore the office of science advisor to the Cabinet rank that it held during his father’s administration. He should act now. The nation can ill afford to wait.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff