Warnings Ignored

The Lure of Coastal Life Outweighs The Risks

The Palace Casino in Biloxi, Miss., lies battered by Hurricane Katrina.
The Palace Casino in Biloxi, Miss., lies battered by Hurricane Katrina. (By Barry Williams -- Getty Images)
By Michael Powell and Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

BILOXI, Miss. -- The hurricane that flattened parts of this coastal city and drowned New Orleans, that tossed casino boats into apartment buildings and killed perhaps thousands of Americans, was a disaster long ago foretold.

Scientists and environmentalists have cautioned for years that the nation's coastline is dangerously overbuilt. But with Americans migrating in increasing numbers to coastal counties, construction only accelerated, and local officials increasingly relied on technology and luck to forestall catastrophe. As high-rise condominiums and sprawling beach homes have proliferated, warnings have been consistently ignored.

In Mississippi, 20 glittering casinos sprouted at the water's edge. An Army official tried to impose a moratorium on casino projects along the coast in 1998 but was outmuscled by developers and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). All those casinos, which employed 16,000 people, now lie wrecked and broken.

The development pressure comes from one immutable fact: Americans love waterfront property. And the federal government has fueled that love through flood insurance that minimizes its risks and by paying for infrastructure such as bridges and roads that makes it more accessible.

In the process, coastal development often degrades the barrier beaches and coastal wetlands that can serve as natural buffers against hurricanes. "You just cannot justify massive building and rebuilding near the most dangerous property in the United States," said Orrin H. Pilkey Jr., a professor emeritus at Duke University and a specialist in coastal ecosystems. "It's a form of societal madness."

In Florida, more than 13 million people live in coastal counties, up from 200,000 a century ago. As a result, all four of last year's Florida hurricanes made the list of America's 10 most damaging storms ever. And federal meteorologist Stanley B. Goldenberg, who flew into the eye of Hurricane Katrina as it made landfall, forecasts a spike in hurricanes that could last a decade or more. If the next great storm rolls into Miami Beach or Charleston, S.C., or North Carolina's Outer Banks on a Labor Day weekend, he said, the impact could be almost as devastating -- albeit without New Orleans-style flooding.

"I don't like what I'm finding, but if the steering wind patterns continue, we're going to have a lot more landfalls and . . . a lot more people affected multiple times," said Goldenberg, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami. "I look at the buildings that have gone up, and there are a lot more targets and a lot more arrows."

Scientists and some engineers believe that Americans put too much faith in technological fixes to stave off nature's primal force. For example, the Mississippi River used to bring loads of silt down to the Mississippi Delta, building coastal marshes that helped buffer the Louisiana coast from hurricanes. But as the river was tamed by a series of dikes and dams, cutting off the flow of silt, wetlands began disappearing at the rate of 25 square miles a year -- and New Orleans began to sink even lower.

The Mississippi Delta, scientists note, was the most engineered and industrialized delta in the world, but disaster struck anyway. The levees designed to protect New Orleans were intended only for a Category 3 hurricane, and in previous years critics had questioned whether they could withstand a storm of even that power. (Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane.)

"There's only two kinds of levees," said Jane Bullock, chief of staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration. "Ones that have failed and those that will fail."

The disaster in New Orleans "is not an act of God," said Benigno Aguirre, a professor at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. "This is an act of man. The federal government refused to spend the money to improve the levees."

New Orleans Was Warned

Scientists have warned of the dangers to New Orleans for years. In 2001, for example, Scientific American published a prescient article titled "Drowning New Orleans," predicting that "a major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands." Evacuating huge numbers of people from New Orleans and from coastal areas has long been seen as a problem, especially given the concentration of the poor in New Orleans and the growing population in other parts of the Gulf Coast.

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