September 5, 2008

Katrina Brought Winds of Change

Apparently, experience really is the best teacher.

State, local and federal authorities all performed far better in dealing with Hurricane Gustav than they did in their joint bungling of Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

Best of all, there are emerging signs that government and citizens in hurricane-prone regions are starting to get beyond the obvious notion of strengthening levees where necessary to also restoring the wetlands that are nature's first line of defense against tropical storms.

In the wake of Katrina, there was blame enough for everybody. The unforgettable sight of school buses sitting flooded in parking lots while residents died in nursing homes because they had no way to evacuate was proof enough of buck-passing and incompetence from the lowest to the highest levels of government.

This time, local, state and federal officials worked smoothly to evacuate almost 2 million residents, leaving the streets of New Orleans and surrounding parishes to the National Guard members, rescue workers and the inevitable few skeptics who refused to leave.

Admittedly, Gustav hit with much less force than Katrina, and its economic damage is now estimated at as little as $4.5 billion, barely a tenth of Katrina's record $41.1 billion in 2005. But this is at least in part a case of fortune favoring the prepared. The phrase "better safe than sorry" doesn't begin to describe the value of the evacuation. Ensuring the safety of the area's residents allowed more than 11,000 workers to concentrate on restoring power, while 1,800 U.S. Army engineers cleared trees and debris from roads, Gov. Bobby Jindal said.

By coincidence, the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday vetoed a $220 million Army Corps of Engineers flood-control project in the Mississippi Delta known as the Yazoo Pumps.

Conservation groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have argued for years that the project would not only harm aquatic habitat important to migratory birds, fish, black bears and other wildlife, it would severely impact tens of thousands of acres of wetlands. Next, argued Betsy Loyless, Audubon Society senior vice president, "The Corps should focus on ways to protect and restore wetlands along the river's length and particularly in coastal Louisiana, where wetlands are the first line of defense against tropical storms."

That's a wise long-term goal. But for now, the National Guard members, other state and local officials, FEMA representatives, medical personnel and other rescue workers should take a few seconds off from their labors to accept the thanks of a grateful nation.

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