In August 2005, all of us watched the human tragedy and suffering and environmental catastrophe that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For several days after the hurricane struck, Americans watched as thousands of New Orleans residents clung to roof tops or huddled in the Superdome for survival.
What we witnessed was a massive failure of government – at all levels – that endangered our most vulnerable citizens by leaving them stranded without adequate shelter, food, clothing, or medicine.
As a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, I recently visited New Orleans to attend a field hearing to investigate many of the problems that contributed to the disaster and hamper the city's recovery.
I was shocked by what I saw. It has been 18 months since the hurricane, but debris is preventing recovery and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers line the streets of many neighborhoods. While touring the city, I saw neighborhoods in which only about 15 percent of the pre-hurricane population has returned. There are no stores and no services, only slabs of cement where houses once stood.
Hurricane Katrina generated more debris than Hurricane Andrew and the 9/11 attacks combined. The challenge is how to dispose of all that waste – and where. Much of it is hazardous. Unfortunately, illegal dumping has become endemic and has stymied efforts to rebuild many neighborhoods.
Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it hit New Orleans. The levee system was supposed to be adequate for a hurricane of that magnitude. Obviously, it was not. The challenge now is to rebuild – and improve – the city's levees, floodwalls, canals, and pumps to withstand a storm as strong as or stronger than Katrina. That will take a firm, long-term financial commitment from the Federal Government.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the city and the Gulf Coast is the rapid decline of wetlands. That's a problem that Maryland and all coastal states face. Wetlands provide a natural protection against hurricanes, but the wetlands surrounding New Orleans have been declining for years. Southeastern Louisiana loses wetlands equal to about 25 football fields in size each and every day.
No one could have stopped Hurricane Katrina, but we could have prevented much of the human tragedy and environmental devastation that accompanied the storm. Government has an obligation to function effectively in protecting its citizens, it has an obligation to build a strong and adequate levee system, and it has an obligation to protect and restore wetlands so that the destruction that took place in and around New Orleans does not happen again. It also has an obligation to help the victims rebuild their homes and their lives.