Explained: Why Katrina was a Human-Made Disaster, Not a Natural One

The Buzz

The flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina was a human-made disaster, not a natural one. The flood-protection system for the city had been poorly designed and maintained. It also turned out that a series of waterway engineering decisions to try to contain the flow of the Mississippi River and to facilitate river navigation to and from the Gulf of Mexico, were badly out of sync with the region’s ecosystem. In short, it was a failure of critical infrastructure at multiple levels that nearly doomed one of America’s major cities. Ten years later, what happened to New Orleans should serve as a forceful reminder of the costly consequences of hubris, denial, and neglect. Sadly, though, this attitude continues to characterize the relationship Americans have with their built and natural environments.

New Orleans’s primary line of defense against the sea and the Mississippi River has long been a levee and floodwall system. Unfortunately, that system saw little investment in the half century prior to Hurricane Katrina. The city is like a fishbowl, with the water on the outside and a half a million homes on the inside. New Orleans has been sinking at a rate of three feet per century, so that it lies at an average of six feet below sea level, with some neighborhoods as low as eleven feet below. Without the levees and floodwalls, much of the city would be a shallow lake.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall it had hooked east, sparing the city its worst winds. But the waters from the storm found a ready path to assault the “Big Easy,” thanks to the construction of a 76-mile canal that was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1968. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), known locally as “Mr. Go”, was built to shorten the time and distance required for oceangoing vessels to transit from the Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans waterfront. During Katrina this cement-sided waterway provided a ready path to funnel the storm surge originating from the Gulf of Mexico for a direct hit on New Orleans. As the hurricane came onshore, the water steamrolled down the MRGO on a collision course with the Industrial Canal, causing an 800-foot breach. Many of the communities to the east of New Orleans were victims of the overtopping of the MRGO. More than 80 percent of the city was flooded and nearly 250,000 residents were forced to flee; today the population is still nearly 100,000 below its pre-Katrina level.

Given its clear vulnerability to flooding, the haphazard management of New Orleans’ storm protection system prior to Hurricane Katrina is mystifying. Invading floodwaters not only put lives at risk, they created a toxic cauldron of debris that contaminated and scarred the urban landscape. Yet throughout the 1990s, federal funds that might have been used to repair and strengthen the city’s levees and flood walls and protect the pumping stations were bled off for other projects, such as widening the MRGO. In 2004, the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $22.5 million for storm protection projects for New Orleans. The Bush administration cut that budget request to $3.9 million and then dropped it to $3.0 million in 2005.

Sadly, the sense of denial and neglect of critical infrastructure that led to the near drowning of New Orleans in 2005 continues to endanger many U.S. cities today. Miami, Norfolk, New York, and Boston all face the twin risks of rising sea levels associated with climate change along with the likelihood of more frequent and intense hurricanes. Seattle sits astride the Cascadia subduction zone that belongs to the Pacific Rim’s seismically active “Ring of Fire,”and Los Angeles lies along the San Andreas Fault. In America’s heartland, cities such as St. Louis and Memphis could be devastated by an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault Line.

Across the nation, Americans have been taking for granted the critical infrastructure built with the sweat, ingenuity, and resources of earlier generations. Not only are we not upgrading it to keep pace with modern needs, Congress and state legislatures have been squandering this legacy by failing to adequately fund basic repairs and maintenance for roads, bridges, ports, wastewater and drinking water systems, dams, and levees, and the electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems. Even for “blue sky” days, our ongoing neglect of that infrastructure is a national disgrace. But as New Orleanians can attest, it translates into reckless endangerment when disasters strike.

For too long Americans have been pretending that disasters are rare and unknowable. Additionally, we have been resistant to making sensible investments in mitigation measures before storms occur, such as placing flood barriers around electrical substations or moving emergency generators out of basements to higher floors. Insanely, in the aftermath of disasters we have a national bad-habit of returning to “business as usual” by often allowing reconstruction in areas that will almost certainly be flooded again.

Hurricane Katrina, along with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, are reminders that the gravest source of danger for Americans derives not from acts of God or acts of terror but from our own negligence. The ongoing risk associated with disasters is far more knowable than we often assume and the means for mitigating their consequences are well within the reach of the most-advanced and wealthiest country in the world.

What has been in too short supply is the political will and leadership that will ensure our communities, metropolitan regions, and nation can better withstand, nimbly respond, recover, and adapt to the inevitable disasters heading our way. There are few more important imperatives that the next president will need to advance than bolstering national resilience.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Renewing America here.

TopicsEnvironment RegionsUnited States

Revealed: How to Stop China's Slow Strangle of Asia's Security Order

The Buzz

I’m in Taiwan this week as a guest of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, speaking at the ROC (Taiwan)–US–Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue, a meeting held annually since 2011. It’s a similar idea to the Quadrilateral Plus Dialogue, in that it’s a group of democratic states with a stake in Asia–Pacific security getting together to examine where their interests overlap and how we might cooperate on security matters.

Also like the Quad Plus, there’s an obvious “elephant in the room” in the form of the PRC and the way in which it’s driving regional thinking on security issues. This post is extracted from my conference paper, written for the session on maritime security.

Maritime security in the Asia–Pacific region has been largely underwritten by the capability of the United States Navy for the past 70 years. That reflects the circumstances at the end of WWII, when all the Asian powers were weakened by years of war, and in Japan’s case by disastrous defeat. It was a regional manifestation of a global rewriting of the world order, which saw the United States being the dominant power everywhere but Eastern Europe. The global economic system defined at Bretton Woods reflected the unrivalled financial strength of the post-war United States, and the global trading system became increasingly liberalized. The net result was the creation of a system in which many nations prospered—not least of which those in Asia over the past quarter century. The Soviet Union, for most of that period the only serious geopolitical rival to American power, finally collapsed when it couldn’t match the economic growth that was powering its rivals.

Today we’re seeing the metastable post-WWII order coming under serious pressure. Ironically, the main challenge is coming from China, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the United States led order. The U.S. and other countries, including Australia, helped the PRC enter the world economy and set it on the path to becoming the world’s largest economy. It was always the hope—and probably expectation—that the PRC would ‘normalize’ into the world community and become a partner in the order from which it had benefitted so much. I think it’s fair to say that most of us are disappointed, if not outright alarmed, at the actual trajectory the PRC seems to have chosen for its rise to the top of the list of world powers.

China is throwing out significant challenges in all aspects of national power. Its economic clout is considerable, its military power is growing rapidly, its espionage activities are very successful and it isn’t afraid to use any or all of those to pursue its own interests. Of course all countries do that to some extent, and we shouldn’t be surprised when China puts its own interests first. But what’s different, I think, is that China appears to want to be the most successful player in a game in which it defines its own rules, rather than becoming a powerhouse in the order that the rest of us have been happy to operate within.

American naval power has been mostly uncontested for decades, and the Soviet Union was much less strong at sea than on the land or in the air, but it’s now coming under pressure in the Western Pacific due to the growing ability of the PRC to field anti-access and area denial capabilities. I don’t have to explain here in Taiwan the difference in PLA capability relative to the US today compared to 20 years ago during the third Strait crisis.

That has led some commentators to argue that the ability of the U.S. to underwrite the security of its partners and allies in this part of the world has declined. I’m not so sure of that. It is certainly true that there is much less qualitative difference between PRC and U.S. capability today, and due to proximity, the PRC probably has a quantitative advantage in most circumstances. But it is far from being able to overwhelm the United States, and any significant armed clash would still be disastrously costly (increasingly for both sides). The forces of the US still represent a substantial deterrent to overt military adventurism, and the question ultimately boils down to one of American resolve.

The challenge for US allies and partners is to keep America engaged. In the past we’ve all tended to ‘free ride’ on American power. Japan is spending under 1% of GDP on defense and Australia 1.8%, while the US spends more than 4%. When there was no serious challenge to the U.S. Navy in our region that was a low risk strategy. But today we have to collectively think harder about the costs and benefits of alliance and partnership contributions. If the U.S. sees its good will towards its friends in the region being taken advantage of, it will have less incentive to continue to commit substantial resources, especially as the environment becomes ever more challenging.

Australia is moving to spend more on defense, and to align its forces with those of the U.S., so placing a bet that a stronger contribution to the American alliance framework will help underpin the current security structure. As we see in the South China Sea, that strategy is vulnerable to ‘chipping away’ at the periphery, which the PRC is currently doing, but it probably still represents the best alternative in the big picture of regional security.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

CFTNI Job Posting: Senior Fellow, U.S.-China Relations

The Buzz

The Center for the National Interest seeks to hire a Senior Fellow to lead projects on U.S.-China relations and U.S. policy toward China.  As the Center’s principal full-time professional staff member focused on Asia, the Senior Fellow will play a key part in shaping this program and will be expected to build a highly visible role in Washington’s policy community.

The successful candidate will be a competent and accomplished self-starter with expertise on one or more key areas including: U.S.-China political and security relations, U.S.-China economic relations, U.S. policy toward China, Chinese foreign policy, China’s economy, and Chinese domestic politics.

Key responsibilities will include:

- Working with the management and with a part-time senior colleague to define program priorities and leading the Center’s pursuit of the agreed goals on a day-to-day basis;

- Planning and organizing a monthly series of meetings focused on topical issues in U.S.-China relations, including political, economic and security issues as well as China’s domestic politics;

- Writing policy-oriented articles and reports, including for the Center’s magazine The National Interest and, commenting in national media, and speaking regularly at the Center and other organizations;

- Conceptualizing, writing and submitting proposals to foundations and other organizations, in consultation with the management, to develop and expand the Center’s projects related to China and U.S.-China relations;

- Supervising a part-time program assistant and one or more volunteer interns, as needed.

A graduate degree in a related discipline or equivalent professional experience is required; Chinese (Mandarin) language proficiency is highly desirable.  Salary and benefits are competitive and based on experience and salary history.

To apply, please send a cover letter, curriculum vitae, professional biography, references, and one or two policy-oriented writing samples to Paul Saunders, Executive Director, Center for the National Interest at

TopicsJob Posting

China's Master Plan to Become a Global Maritime Power

The Buzz

China's navy, from its founding in 1949 to the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, was focused on preventing Taiwan from becoming formally independent. This goal did not require long-distance operations that would require an at-sea resupply capability. Now, however, Beijing has declared its status as a global maritime power. 

Amateurs, it is said, talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. The leaders of China's navy, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), apparently have finally understood the vital role played by logistics in any effective military force. The PLAN's current modernization program may be dated to the mid-1990s, but until recently it failed to include expanding replenishment-at-sea (RAS) capabilities. 

Before the turn of the century, the PLAN included just one Soviet-built oiler and two relatively limited Fuqing-class oilers for its entire fleet. The ex-Soviet Komandarm Fedko-class replenishment ship began construction in the Ukraine in 1989, was purchased by China in 1992, and joined the PLAN in 1996 as the Qinghai-Hu (AO 885). It is a large ship, displacing 37,000 tons, making it almost as big as the most numerous US oilers currently operating. The Qinghai-Hu has four replenishment stations and China added a small flight deck and hangar capable of operating one Z-8 transport helicopter. The ship is reportedly underpowered, with an engineering plant based on just one diesel engine, but has supported ships deploying to Guam and on Gulf of Aden counter-piracy operations.

The two Fuqing-class ships that joined the PLAN in 1980-1982 displace just 21,000 tons. They are equipped with four refueling stations, but have minimal stores replenishment capability. These ships have a small flight deck but no hangar, severely limiting their ability to operate helicopters.

China's lack of emphasis on underway refueling capability before 2005 is highlighted by the fact that Beijing actually built four Fuqing-class ships in the 1980s, but sold one of them to Pakistan in 1988, while assigning the fourth to commercial service.

But additional oilers joined the PLAN in 2005, when two Fuchi-class ships were commissioned. The Fuchi oilers are the first modern RAS ships in China's navy; two improved versions of this class joined the fleet in 2014. This has meant that the PLAN counter-piracy task groups deployed to the Gulf of Aden and beyond have depended almost entirely on the first two Fuchi-class oilers; they were for the most part tasked with 'port and starboard' deployments, assigned away from homeport six of every 12 months. 

The improved Fuchi-class vessels now in the PLAN have four refueling and two stores transfer stations, providing the capability to deliver significant quantities of dry goods and ordnance at sea. They thus should be classified as a replenishment oilier or 'AOR,' rather than the standard 'AO'. This is the class of RAS ship required to support long-range operations, although their relatively small size – 22,000 tons – means that they require frequent replenishment from relay tankers. 

The PLAN in 2015 includes seven RAS ships. At least one additional Fuchi-class AOR is preparing to join the fleet and the PLAN should be expected to budget for additional ships of this class, or an improved version.

PLAN RAS ships have proven their capability at both astern and alongside refueling. Additionally, they all have flight decks capable of helicopter operations, though only the Qinghai-Hu and the Fuchi-class ships are equipped with the hangars necessary to embark Z-8 logistics support helicopters.

The Chinese navy's experiences in long-range deployments have increased significantly since December 2008, when the first counter-piracy task group departed for the Gulf of Aden. The past seven years of 'far seas' operations have brought home to Beijing the fleet's need to be logistically self-supporting if it is to be an effective tool of statecraft and able to support China's national security priorities at sea. These include disputes in the East and South China Seas, of course, but extend to defending the global trade routes on which China's economic well-being depends. 

China's recognition of the importance of logistics support for the PLAN's far seas operations is also recognized in its move to establish a relatively permanent facility at Djibouti. Establishing an overseas logistics system will support, rather than take the place, of RAS ships.

The increasing number of RAS ships entering China's fleet will also allow greater employment of the PLAN's aircraft carriers, the first of which, Liaoning, will within the next decade be joined by at least the first indigenously built Chinese flattop. Carrier operations require the near-constant presence of RAS ships, primarily to replenish aircraft fuel and ordnance, as well as being on-hand to refuel escorting destroyers and frigates.

The PLAN in 2015 has an adequate RAS force to support continuous far seas operations. Increased defense funding and support illustrate Beijing's recognition of the need for improved RAS capability. Additional replenishment ships will be built to better support both those operations as well as future aircraft carrier operations.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Terrorists Always Will Find Targets

Paul Pillar

The foiled attack last week by a heavily armed gunman on a Paris-bound express train has generated a surge of discussion and hand-wringing in Europe about how better to protect against such attacks. There is nothing new about European trains as a terrorist target; an attack against commuter trains in Madrid eleven years ago that killed 191 people was a far more significant event. And the policy challenges involved are hardly specific either to Europe or to trains.

Security for particular types of potential terrorist targets is routinely a topic after even failed terrorist attacks, and protective security countermeasures constitute a large proportion of public measures to counter international terrorism. Nonetheless, a serious and inherent limitation to what can be accomplished on this front is the unlimited number of potential targets. This limitation flows from the very nature of terrorism as the use of violence to elicit a broader political and psychological effect rather than merely to disable the particular target that is attacked. Soft targets can be made harder, but then terrorists will turn to other soft targets. Commercial aviation—still a juicy terrorist target for several reasons—has been made much harder than it once was, but there are still plenty of trains to go after. And it's not just transportation; any public place with a lot of people, such as shopping malls, will do.

The vast number of soft public targets means it is beyond the resources of public authorities to protect them at all. And with some targets, substantial protection quickly comes into conflict with normal commerce and everyday life. The sorts of security measures that now surround civil aviation could not practically be applied to mass transit and commuter railroads.

Trends in international terrorism in recent years have featured not only unlimited targets but also unlimited terrorists. All the soft, vulnerable targets in our open societies are vulnerable not only to well-organized groups but also to any individuals, or duets or trios, with a grievance, and if the grievance is political then any violent actions they take are by definition terrorism. ISIS has grabbed our attention with its land-grabs in the Middle East, but it is focused on trying to sustain its so-called caliphate. Many of the operations conducted in its name, especially the farther one gets from the Middle East, are generated elsewhere with only the ISIS brand name being borrowed. So-called lone wolves are a bigger part of the problem in the West than they would be in Morocco or Bangladesh, and a bigger problem for the West than any attacks there by ISIS.

Counterterrorist measures are still, as they always have been, a matter of shifting odds rather than of being able to eradicate a problem. This is true of security countermeasures, even for potential targets that have been substantially hardened. One of the few trains in the West that has airport-style security screening of passengers is the Eurostar train that uses the tunnel under the English Channel. One wonders what sort of security vulnerabilities regarding that train were demonstrated when an illegal migrant recently walked almost the entire length of the tunnel before he was caught.

The shifting of odds is also involved in anything that affects the motivations of would-be terrorists. The objective here is to reduce the chance of people being angry and frustrated enough to resort to the extreme of terrorism. The relevant public policies include ones that affect the personal circumstances in which such people live. They also include any policies of Western governments that become the objects of anger. The shaping of neither of these types of policies commonly bears the label of counterterrorism. They are nonetheless where there is likely to be, over the long run, even greater potential for changing the odds of our soft public spaces being attacked than there is through security countermeasures. The potential also is greater than through offensive kinetic action taken against people who already have crossed the line into terrorism, including action taken broadly against groups or more narrowly against individuals. With both types of action the severe limitations, as well as counterproductive aspects that can generate more angry people and more terrorism, have been repeatedly demonstrated.                              

TopicsTerrorism RegionsEurope