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USA TODAY Op-Ed: Longstanding Disaster Threats Can't Be Ignored

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed was published in the Sept. 8, 2005, edition of USA TODAY.

Ten days after it was known that an extraordinary storm was approaching the Gulf Coast, the ravages of the hurricane and the human suffering have still not been adequately addressed. This is not a time for partisan recriminations, because the clear threats to New Orleans have been recognized and analyzed for decades, and no adequate preventive or corrective action has been planned or funded.

In 1989, John McPhee described in The Control of Nature a threat to the Mississippi delta if/when one of the key upriver containment devices is ruptured by floodwaters, especially one that controls flow into the Atchafalaya River.

The most definitive warning I've read about the consequences of a hurricane striking New Orleans was written by Mark Fischetti in Scientific American in 2001. He describes the potentially disastrous channeling of the Mississippi River flow well out into the gulf, which robs silt from the coastal flood plains and the protective offshore barrier reefs. He also predicts with horrifying prescience the vast waters of the gulf and Lake Pontchartrain pouring into the city through dikes ruptured by storm surges.

These longstanding warnings have been ignored or met with a halfhearted response. Instead of dissipating, the dangers have been exacerbated by global warming. The first warnings came in 1979 while I was president, when top American scientists expressed concern about global warming. Now we know their warnings are coming true, with a notable increase in the frequency and severity of hurricanes, the melting of mountain glaciers and ice in the polar regions and a rise in the level of the seas.

That same year, I responded to a request from America's governors to centralize federal emergency functions and issued an executive order that brought 16 major agencies together to form the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with a pledge that it would be independent, apolitical and adequately funded. While these commitments were honored, FEMA performed superbly through many natural disasters, including hurricanes Frederic, David, Gilbert, Hugo and Floyd.

It is obvious that action to minimize destructive natural disasters would have been expensive, with cost estimates as high as $14 billion. In addition, many housing and other development projects would need to be moved, strengthened or excluded from beachfronts and other sites where sand dunes, wetlands and other natural protective areas need to be preserved.

The apparently forbidding financial costs pale into relative insignificance compared with the estimated $100 billion in damages from Katrina. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers has been underfunded for years. A request for $105 million for hurricane and flood programs, including levee improvements in New Orleans, last year was reduced by two-thirds. At the same time Congress went on to approve a $286 billion highway bill, with bipartisan support, including many unnecessary pork-barrel projects. There also are strong efforts to repeal the estate tax, which could increase the deficit and deprive other federal programs of $750 billion in the next 10 years.

Eventually, most of the physical damage from Katrina will be repaired, but it is imperative that a long-term and nationwide assessment be made of other hurricane threats, dense habitation of unstable mountain slopes on the California coast, and seismic shifts that will ultimately create destructive earthquakes in the same area.

Congress should establish a blue-ribbon non-partisan commission to recommend action that will minimize future damage and maximize the ability to respond. The primary problem will not be the costs, but possible legal restraints on human development in natural areas, supplemented by discouraging building by requiring property owners to purchase insurance against floods, beach erosion, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Special attention must be given to the needs of poor families.

Experts understand the threats from nature, funds are available, and at least for a few months Americans will be willing to share reasonable sacrifices. But this willingness will dissipate with time.

Immediate action is needed.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter is the founder of The Carter Center, a non-governmental organization based in Atlanta.

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