Some disasters are natural, and some are man-made. Hurricane Katrina was a violent hurricane, but it is remembered principally for the shocking failure of the government's response to the devastating effects of the storm. The BP Oil Spill and the Massey Coal Mine Disaster are entirely "unnatural," in the sense that nature played no part in creating the deadly disasters; it was merely a backdrop. What claimed lives -- 29 in the Massey mine in West Virginia and 11 in the Gulf of Mexico -- and what created an ecological nightmare in the case of BP, was the policy decisionmaking and the failed enforcement of regulations. Company officials made choices that put profit ahead of safety, policymakers made decisions that created the context for that recklessness, and regulators missed chances to enforce safety requirements. Human decisions, all.
Among the more significant pre-storm failures that contributed to the scope of the damage: inadequate levees and botched supervision of levee construction by the Army Corps of Engineers; wetlands policies and under-funding of restoration efforts, leading to a lack of natural barriers and absorption of floodwaters; failed toxic waste cleanup efforts that allowed toxics to ooze into floodwaters; the de-emphasizing and under-funding of the federal government’s emergency response capacity by the Bush Administration; and more. These and other bad policy choices are laid bare in CPR’s groundbreaking examination of the disaster’s antecedents, Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, published in September 2005.
In the days immediately following the disaster, in an effort to defend or at least distract attention from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s manifest failure, some conservative critics charged that a late 1970s lawsuit brought by New Orleans commercial and environmental organizations had “caused” the disaster, by scuttling an Army Corps of Engineers levee plan. CPR Member Scholars quickly issued a report documenting otherwise, Broken Levees: Why They Failed. The Corps had failed to file an even remotely adequate environmental impact statement, as the law requires, and the judge in the case ordered the Corps to conduct such analysis before proceeding with construction. The Corps subsequently opted for a different design for reasons unrelated to the litigation.
Learn more about CPR’s work in the aftermath of Katrina:
CPR's CatastropheWatch. Learn about the interplay of the civil justice and regulatory systems in the context of catastrophes, and learn about CPR's CatastropheWatch project.
The Federal Role. Read Robert R.M. Verchick's February 7, 2006 op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, "A Federal Obligation," on the Bush Administration's approach to rebuilding New Orleans.
Policy Failures Made Katrina Worse. Read CPR's "Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," by Member Scholars of the Center for Progressive Reform. The report describes the failed environmental, energy, and disaster prevention and management policies that exacerbated Katrina's damage, leading to a breathtaking example of environmental injustice. Or read the executive summary to "Unnatural Disaster." (CPR White Paper 512, September 2005)