No. 254 . 31 August 2005 
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Disaster Engineering

by Kevin Matthews

New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama lie devastated in the days-old wake of Hurricane Katrina. As water floods through New Orleans and desperate rescues continue, our hearts go out to the hundreds of thousands whose lives have been devastated and to the untold thousands whose loved ones have been lost.

As those who can help directly pitch in heroically, and as the seconds, minutes, and hours of survivors begin to drag out into the days, weeks, and months of refugees, perhaps it is not too early for the design community to start resolving to do better. For thousands of Katrina casualties, it is already, tragically, far too late.

An individual hurricane is an act of nature. How tragically ironic that just as the United States is reeling from Katrina's awful smash, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is working to strike the words "respect for nature," among others, from a harmless listing of the world's basic values (Economist.com).

At the same time, much of the death and destruction from Hurricane Katrina is human induced, or at least enhanced, rather than strictly natural. Societal decisions of where and how to build, where to barge and drill, where to channel, dam, straighten, and pump can have disastrous local and regional impacts. For instance, the latest scientific research (Nature 436, 1071, 25 August 2005), suggests that coral theft offshore was a significant contributor to the severity of local damage from the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.   >>>

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