Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina devastated the US Gulf Coast in August 2005. This was a long anticipated and very credibly predicted event. It was not a surprise:

Prior to 2005 the worst recorded hurricane to hit this region was a category 3, for which the levees were adequate. However, this was believed by scientists to be inadequate:
  • Due to climate change and rising water surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, plus storms repeatedly hitting Florida, it was well known that the severity of storms in this region was increasing.
  • In summer 2005, the temperature in the Gulf exceeded 30 degrees Celsius. At these temperatures hurricanes gain strength and speed and size.

Why was the response inadequate? US federal politics:

In 2000, the threat of a major hurricane to this region was considered to be the number one problem and number one issue to FEMA. In part because they so drastically cut storm surge wave strength, Gulf coastal forests, coastal bogs and barrier islands were protected under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton's administrations. Funds were set aside to upgrade levees to be able to withstand the long-anticipated category 4 or 5 hurricane. All of this was set aside and de-prioritized after September 11, 2001, and further deprioritized during the Iraq occupation.

The Bush administration degraded FEMA from a full US cabinet post to a subsection of US Homeland Security, a new agency coordinating an extremely wide number of activities. They cut funds to levees and to pumping facilities, and also failed to protect the coastal forests and swamps and islands, which fell to real estate developers and the oil extraction and oil refining industries. Further, they failed to enforce environmental regulations effectively, which led to large amounts of toxic waste being stored in close proximity to New Orleans.

As of September 2005, all of this waste, mixed with other industrial chemicals, many dead and dying human bodies, dead and dying pets, raw sewage, seawater and every kind of trash, waste, and garbage imaginable is in what used to be New Orleans. Pumping stations are underwater, leading some to estimate that the "water" will not be removed completely until early in 2006. The city itself has been evacuated for at least one full month. It is unsafe for any human habitation and it will be at least ten years before it is fully known what the effects were.

It is the worst human disaster ever to hit the United States, amplified by the inadequacy of the response.

Cuba for instance regularly evacuates over one million people from vulnerable coastline, and in major hurricane events has a record of losing no lives at all. For a poor country, this is relatively simpler to do, but, nonetheless, similar emergency powers exist in the United States to do the same, if the will was there.

Much of the criticism of US response has focused on one official. There were repeated calls to fire Michael Brown, head of the US FEMA, the agency that was supposed to lead up response to such a major disaster. One of the loudest voices was the New Orleans flagship paper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Brown eventually quit.

Later Congressional inquiries claimed that every level of government had totally failed in the response and also called for firing Michael Chertoff, head of the US Homeland Security agency that includes FEMA.