On the day after, sobering lessons from Katrina
Wed Aug 31, 7:10 AM ET
As the full impact of Hurricane Katrina began to sink in Tuesday - New Orleans flooding, scenes of devastation along the Gulf Coast, a death toll of dozens and rising - perhaps the broadest lesson was the reminder that in the contest of nature vs. man, nature at its most powerful retains the upper hand.
For all the satellites, mass communications and emergency preparedness that seem to convey omniscience and control, our ability to mitigate nature's fury is marginal. That said, some other painful lessons are already clear, and applicable to future disasters:
First impressions can be misleading. Reporters and officials at first reported jubilantly that the old downtown of New Orleans had been spared the worst. But by Tuesday morning, water was flooding in as levees and pumps failed. Officials discussed how to get the people remaining in the city out. The magnitude of the devastation there, and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, eclipsed Monday's initial assessments.
Even the most sturdy-seeming evacuation centers don't come with guarantees. The Louisiana Superdome, where 10,000 took refuge, had parts of the roof ripped off. "Vertical evacuation" to the upper floors of high-rise hotels, where many hid, didn't work as Katrina shattered windows. "There are no safe havens," was the understatement of Joseph Matthews, local emergency preparedness chief.
Preventive maintenance matters. New Orleans' failure to keep levees and pumps in prime condition is at least partly to blame for the flooding. The same applies for building codes in disaster-prone areas.
There are limits to what emergency services can do. That's an added reason to evacuate when officials give the orders to do so. Some people lost their lives because they didn't evacuate when they could have. Others remained trapped, unable to contact emergency services as phone networks have failed. All place an added burden on thousands of rescuers, including more than 1,600 Mississippi National Guardsmen who have been activated to help.
More lessons will emerge in the days and weeks to come as the full impact sets in of what is shaping up to be the most costly hurricane in U.S. history. Those lessons will surely need to be applied to future disasters; the only question is when.
Will another such storm strike in a year? Five? Thirty? When will that long-predicted killer earthquake hit Los Angeles or San Francisco? What about another tsunami?
They're all nature's secrets.