Katrina Musings: What About All of Our Other Vulnerable Coastal Cities?

Today, the two year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall, my hometown of New Orleans is getting some much needed attention. And rightly so: It's a scandal that in the years since the disaster, all too little has changed. Time magazine recently blazoned the word "pathetic" on its cover to describe the lagging efforts to re-defend the city. Residents are reoccupying and rebuilding willy-nilly, including in the most vulnerable, flood-prone areas. Meanwhile, the agency whose failures drowned the city to begin with, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, lurches into a series of projects that still won't protect against the deadliest hurricanes the Gulf of Mexico can spawn--at least not at any time in the foreseeable future.

In this context, who could do anything but predict another disaster eventually if we simply carry on as we've been doing? In fact, one can easily imagine scenarios for New Orleans that would be considerably worse than Katrina--a storm that, it is too often forgotten, both weakened and swerved aside, failing to deliver its full force to the city. The outlook only gets more worrisome when you consider that continuing land subsidence, coupled with sea level rise, keep bringing the Gulf in closer. Meanwhile, hurricanes are only expected to grow more intense on average in the future. Indeed, although debate persists over the precise relationship between hurricanes and climate change, the Atlantic's recent hyperactivity suggests that intensification may already have begun.

All of these trends look grim for New Orleans--but from the perspective of national policy, it gets even worse. What much of the Katrina anniversary discussion seems to have missed is that New Orleans is hardly our only exposed area. The really scary question is this: If we can't do better when it comes to defending New Orleans, how will we protect other coastal cities subject to dire hurricane risks--risks that have received far less national media attention than those facing the Crescent City? Consider a few scenarios that have long been predicted:

* A Category 4 or stronger hurricane strikes the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, Florida, area, driving a tremendous storm surge that knocks out bridges, floods downtown Tampa 20 feet deep, and temporarily turns St. Petersburg into an island.

*A mega-hurricane strikes Galveston/Houston, Texas, flooding the homes of 600,000 Harris County residents--resulting in damages approaching $50 billion.

*We see a repeat of the 1926 Category 4 Miami Hurricane, but the storm strikes a massively wealthier and more populous coast than existed the last time around. Damages exceed $ 100 billion and Katrina ceases to be the most costly hurricane in U.S. history.

* And most alarming of all: Decades from now, with sea level a foot higher, a Category 3 storm makes its way to New York City. Areas submerged include parts of southern Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island City, Astoria, and (that's right) lower Manhattan.

And these are just some of the worst case scenarios. Many other U.S. cities are also highly exposed to hurricanes, all along the Gulf Coast and up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Without a doubt, we haven't done nearly enough for New Orleans--and for that, our leaders ought to be ashamed. Having grown up in the city myself, and watched my mother lose her home in Katrina, I'm as outraged as anyone about the continuing failure to learn from that painful lesson.

But as we look to the future, I think we have to remember that this is bigger than New Orleans. I don't know where the next intense hurricane will hit, but I can think of a lot of places that won't be ready.

[This post is adapted from a recent op-ed syndicated by Blue Ridge Press.]