Saturday, September 03, 2005

"No one could have anticipated...."

Whenever things turn out disasterously wrong, the party or parties most directly responsible for avoiding, mitigating, or responding to the disaster will always plead, as G. W. Bush did, that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

And yet, it usually turns out in cases where disasters are very large and very public, that they have been anticipated, by people and institutions with the professional competence to analyze the situation. Case in point: the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane:
Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued.
That was written (in National Geographic, October 2004) one year before the disaster happened. But it wasn't any amazing feat of prognostication. Simply a logical conclusion of straightforward scientific analysis of the relevant facts. (Quite a few people have pointed out this article, such as here.)

Or how about this, from Scientific American (October 2001):
A major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands. Human activities along the Mississippi River have dramatically increased the risk, and now only massive reengineering of southeastern Louisiana can save the city.
Professionals who studied the situation all knew of the problem. They knew that New Orleans' levee system was designed for at most a category 3 hurricane, and would fail in a sufficiently stronger hurricane, like the one that finally arrived.(Which would be worse? If the people at the top actually didn't know these facts, or if they did and lied about not knowing? What a choice. Lying, incompetence, unconcern, calculated negligence, or maybe all of the above.)

Unfortunately, the U. S. government is now run by people who are openly hostile to scientific facts and scientific analysis. So it's no surprise at all that they were unable to foresee and anticipate the disaster. This is unacceptable in top governmental officials.

It isn't the fault of the professional scientists and experts who work for the govenment. Those among them who studied the New Orleans situation have understood for a long time what would happen when a large hurricane struck New Orleans directly. In 2001, for instance, it was reported:
New Orleans is sinking.
And its main buffer from a hurricane, the protective Mississippi River delta, is quickly eroding away, leaving the historic city perilously close to disaster.
So vulnerable, in fact, that earlier this year the Federal Emergency Management Agency ranked the potential damage to New Orleans as among the three likeliest, most castastrophic disasters facing this country.
The other two? A massive earthquake in San Francisco, and, almost prophetically, a terrorist attack on New York City.
The New Orleans hurricane scenario may be the deadliest of all.
In the face of an approaching storm, scientists say, the city's less-than-adequate evacuation routes would strand 250,000 people or more, and probably kill one of 10 left behind as the city drowned under 20 feet of water. Thousands of refugees could land in Houston.
This wasn't just some obscure potential problem, it was one of the three most likely to occur. And one of the other two has already occurred. The third, too, is 100% inevitable. It's only a matter of time.

So why didn't the people at the top of the government "anticipate" this disaster? Because they had other things on their minds, and they didn't want to be bothered with concerns that didn't fit their agenda. And most of all, because of active hostility towards scientific analysis that isn't of use to that agenda, and may even argue against it.

Well, the New Orleans disaster is now history. But what other future disasters are still out there, disasters that are almost certain to happen, yet the people in control of the government don't want to think seriously about, and don't want anyone else to think about either?

There's global warming, obviously. It may in fact play a role in the increasing frequency and destructiveness of hurricanes, though that isn't yet proven. But there are terrible consequences that can be anticipated with near certainty, such as rise of sea levels over the next century. Other coastal cities like Miami (as well as New Orleans if it's rebuilt) will be under water, eventually.

What else? How about the end of cheap oil? While we may never totally exhaust the Earth's supplies of petroleum, it will be a disaster enough if the cost of a barrel of oil reaches $200, then $400, ... As it will eventually, considering how many other large countries in the world are reaching the point in their development where they will compete with the U. S. for unavoidably contracting supplies.

Isn't it, perhaps, foolish to trust the future of the U. S. and the whole world to people who are hostile to professional scientific analysis of such problems? People who are hostile to science in any form that is inconvenient for their ideology and/or economic self-interest?

I like the way Molly Ivins puts it:
In fact, there is now a governmentwide movement away from basing policy on science, expertise and professionalism, and in favor of choices based on ideology. If you're wondering what the ideological position on flood management might be, look at the pictures of New Orleans - it seems to consist of gutting the programs that do anything.

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