The Great Flood of '05

Thursday, September 1, 2005

"I had read of the destruction of Babylon, of Nineveh, and many other soul-stirring and awful human experiences recorded in history . . . at length I realized that San Francisco was about to suffer an effacement as complete as any that had ever taken place."

-- From an eyewitness account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

NOW THAT THE fabled New Orleans levees have catastrophically broken, now that the first helicopter photographs of the city's flooded streets have been broadcast, it has become clear that the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans compares to any of the worst natural disasters in American history: to the fire that destroyed much of Chicago in 1871; to the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Tex., in 1900; and, above all, to the earthquake and fire that wiped out San Francisco in 1906.

At least in San Francisco, people were able to begin rebuilding immediately, sometimes using the rubble left behind after the fire. In New Orleans, rebuilding can't begin until the levees are repaired; the water has been pumped out of the city; and sufficient electricity, communications and sewage disposal have been restored. This may take weeks or even months. Even then it is possible that some parts of this nearly 300-year-old, below-sea-level, at-risk city may never be rebuilt at all. A huge chunk of America's heritage -- the remnants of what was once France's largest North American colony, a Creole culture unique on this continent -- is in severe jeopardy.

As in New York after Sept. 11, 2001, New Orleans, along with the rest of the country, is also grappling with the varied aspects of human nature that come out in the wake of a great tragedy. On the one hand, the heroism of the Coast Guard workers who are still pulling people off the roofs of their homes by helicopter is remarkable. The dedication of the rescue crew members who have arrived from around the country is incredible. The gestures of politicians such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has offered the use of the Houston Astrodome for refugees and Texas public schools for New Orleans children, are admirable. On the other hand, the scenes of looting -- not just of food, which is forgivable, but of television sets and clothing -- show that some people are always prepared to take advantage of the misfortune of others. A lot of attention is paid, nowadays, to the phrase "moral values." Over the next few days, New Orleanians may learn a good deal about what those words really mean to their fellow citizens.

So far, the federal government's immediate response to the destruction of one of the nation's most historic cities does seem commensurate with the scale of the disaster. At an unprecedented news conference, many members of President Bush's Cabinet pledged to dedicate huge resources to the Gulf Coast. The president's decision to release a part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to compensate for the loss of Gulf Coast refineries may represent one of the first truly appropriate uses of that facility.

But over the longer term, it will be extremely important to better understand the causes of this long-predicted disaster and to determine what, if anything, could have prevented it. This administration has consistently played down the possibility of environmental disaster, in Louisiana and everywhere else. The president's most recent budgets have actually proposed reducing funding for flood prevention in the New Orleans area, and the administration has long ignored Louisiana politicians' requests for more help in protecting their fragile coast, the destruction of which meant there was little to slow down the hurricane before it hit the city. It is inappropriate to "blame" anyone for a natural disaster. But given how frequently the impact of this one was predicted, and given the scale of the economic and human catastrophe that has resulted, it is certainly fair to ask questions about disaster preparations. Congress, when it returns, should rise above the blame game and instead probe the state of the nation's preparation for handling major natural catastrophes, particularly those that threaten crucial regions of the country.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company