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Plenary 3 - Katrina: What went wrong and lessons learned,
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23/10/2009 12:30

Lt Gen Robert L. Van AntwerpThe chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers – the organisation responsible for flood protection in New Orleans – today called on people to recognise the limits of what humans can do in managing nature.

Lt General Robert L. Van Antwerp, who was speaking at the Religion, Science and Environment symposium in the city, described the huge range and vast expense of the efforts being made to prevent any repetition of the Hurricane Katrina experience of 2005.

But he reminded delegates of the huge power of the river system: “We try to manage the watercourses ... but in the end it’s going to do what it’s going to do.”

He cited the example of flooding last year in the Midwest, when it was calculated that if all the floodwater that spilled over the region had been successfully contained in the river system, the Mississippi would have risen 100 feet above its normal level at St Louis. There was no question, he said, of building 100-foot protection at St Louis.

The general added that the whole idea of flood protection was probably flawed. “I don’t use the words flood protection; I use the words risk reduction,” he said.

Another speaker told the symposium that only four years on from Hurricane Katrina, people in New Orleans are beginning to forget the scale of the disaster and to underestimate the risk of future floods.

Gerald E. Galloway, formerly with the US Army Corps of Engineers and now a professor at the University of Maryland, said that communicating the level of risk to the public was now a serious problem.

“People just do not understand the risks that they face,” he said. “The memory of flood quickly fades; people have already begun to forget.”

Professor Galloway described for delegates the federal government’s inquest into the flood and the lessons learned – and high among those lessons was the fact that it was impossible to eliminate risk.

He showed a map of the city which indicated which areas were vulnerable in the case of flood (most areas) and said that maps of this kind caused great public concern. “They are among the best things for improving risk communication.”

General Antwerp echoed that view in his presentation, describing how the Corps of Engineers was using GoogleEarth to bring home the message of risk, street by street and house by house.

Professor Galloway explained that the city’s protection was being restored to a level where it was safe against all but a 1 in 100 year event. Then he asked delegates to think about that figure in a different way: for the holders of a normal mortgage, that meant a 1 in 4 chance of inundation in the life of the mortgage. “Those are not very good odds,” he said.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, spoke of the need to provide hydrological systems such as rivers and oceans with space.

Citing examples from history and from around the world today, he showed the feebleness of human efforts to defy such forces.

“If we use engineering to cheat nature of space, nature will not be able to do what we want it to do,” he said.

By Brian Cathcart