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Professor Investigates Hurricane Missteps

Published: October 3rd, 2005

Category: News

Before Congress began its inquiry into the mistakes that turned Hurricane Katrina into one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, a University of Florida law professor led an investigation into the policy decisions that created a nightmare scenario in New Orleans.

Professor Alyson Flournoy, director of the Environmental and Land Use Law Program, led a group of 17 legal and policy scholars in drafting “Unnatural Disaster,” a 56-page white paper that traces the post-storm fiasco to years of bad environmental, energy, and urban planning policy decisions. She presented the paper to the Democratic Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 29.

“It’s clear that, in the days after the hurricane, government failed to do the job that people expected it to do,” Flournoy said. “But the disaster was also the result of years of bad policy choices. We, as a society, knew this was going to happen, and our failure to correct these problems is due to more than incompetence.”

Flournoy is a member of the Center for Progressive Reform, a policy think tank that addresses environmental, health and safety policy issues. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she and other scholars affiliated with CPR recognized a need for a research project that would help identify the policy failures that led to the chaos in New Orleans.

The report identified key questions needing investigation, including:

• Did the loss of wetlands in southern Louisiana rob the city of natural protection from flooding?

• Why did the Army Corps of Engineers fail to plan to protect the city from anything stronger than a Category 3 hurricane? (Katrina made landfall as a Category 4).

• Did elimination of funding sources for the Superfund law contribute to toxic contamination of the floodwaters in the city — and will this impair clean-up efforts? • Did inadequate enforcement of environmental rules on the storage of petroleum products contribute to pollution in those floodwaters?

• Did downsizing, privatization and decentralization at the Federal Emergency Management Agency lead to an agency unable to respond to an emergency?

• Did depletion of the National Guard by the war in Iraq impair Lousiana’s ability to respond to the storm?

• Did the failure to adopt policies that would reduce our dependence on foreign oil leave the nation vulnerable to economic disruption as a result of Gulf hurricanes?

Little more than a month has passed since Katrina came ashore — seemingly little time to conduct a scholarly study. Even so, Flournoy notes, the CPR white paper draws largely on extensive research done before the hurricane hit – studies and papers that warned about the potential for disaster well in advance.

“Compiling this white paper on such short notice has been a major undertaking,” Flournoy said. “But many of us had worked on issues that came to the forefront in the wake of Katrina, and knew these issues needed to be addressed.”

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