Where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, the buffering wetlands are lost at a rate of a football field every 15 minutes, or an entire Manhattan Island every 10 months. And how many of the dwellings in Gulf cities like Gulfport were crushed to splinters not just by wind and water, but by commercial objects like barges, shipping containers and cargo, and floating casinos flung in the surge?
Our society would mobilize hundreds of billions of dollars to prevent the loss of an actual Manhattan Island in ten months, as we have for a distant military occupation. A fraction of that, mobilized in good time, could have substantially protected New Orleans and its surroundings. The billion or so dollars actually allocated in the recent U.S. budget was too little, too late — even before Katrina.
Could tough protections for coastal wetlands hold the profiteering oil industry accountable for its share of the endangering degradation? Is the brewing toxic soup of floodwaters simply inevitable? Or, like an intelligent response to the global warming threat, would greening efforts benefit us twice — both in everyday life and in disaster — in reducing the toxic chemicals cached in our homes and businesses? And how many more hospitals will we site in long-term flood areas?
Yet there's an even larger scale of societal choices. While any one hurricane may just be nature, the underlying trend of increasing impact is not. The best scientific findings show that hurricanes are increasing in intensity due to human-induced global warming ("Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years," Nature.com, 31 July 2005), and that we are at the merest beginning of a long period of rising sea levels.
At this global scale, the United States collectively emits some 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. Yet so far, we as a nation have not only shirked responsibility for our own emissions, but have even interfered with the efforts of other nations to act on their own responsibility.
It is terrible to contemplate, but this storm, individually independent of, but statistically consistent with, warming-enhanced storm intensities, is just a drop in the bucket of effects scientifically predicted from global warming. As a matter of professional ethics, required in a strict technical sense for life and safety, we should contemplate no more building except green building.
Planning, architectural and engineering design, residential and commercial construction, and transportation and production systems all succeed or fail largely as we design them. Human impacts from our technological society are now strongly statistical, as well as individual, and our consciousness must become so. Can we do better? It is our professional responsibility to find out.
The smashed lives and dwellings on the Gulf Coast and the high waters filling New Orleans are partly due to the sheer force of nature. But they are partly due to the misallocation by our society of hundreds of billions of dollars to private profiteering, while the general health and safety and environment have been starved.
Although major media and branches of government have yet to fully grasp this and react accordingly, and although it's happening on our southern coast rather than in our leading city, the Hurricane Katrina disaster will prove by many measures to be of a comparable order of magnitude to the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
By practical necessity, it seems to lie largely in the hands of technically knowledgeable members of society, very much including design professionals, to demand a response which is comparable in intensity — although it must be altogether different in approach — to the response to September 11.
The book Collapse by Jared Diamond persuasively illustrates how a failure to face deep problems and collectively change directions is a primary factor in societal failures throughout human history. In addition to the huge rescue needed and ongoing in New Orleans, it seems an even bigger rescue is necessary, to prevent many more such disasters in the foreseeable future.
Let's find a way to get together and do something about it.
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Kevin Matthews is editor-in-chief of ArchitectureWeek.
New Orleans residents continued to seek refuge in the Superdome until rising of flood waters made it inaccessible.
Photo: Marty Bahamonde/ FEMA News Photo
As water flooded the city through breached levees, a Coast Guard rescuer pulled a pregnant woman from her flooded New Orleans home.
Photo: NyxoLyno Cangemi/ U.S. Coast Guard
Damage caused by Hurricane Katrina at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where the causeway of Highway 90 is visible in pieces in the bay, much like the more widely reported collapse of I-10 across Lake Pontchartrain.
Roadways in New Orleans flood in rising waters, as seen from a Coast Guard assessment overflight.
Photo: Kyle Niemi/ U.S. Army
New Orleans neighborhoods were flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when levees were breached.
Photo: Kyle Niemi/ U. S. Army
Design choices like elevating the house and installing breakaway understory walls saved this Pascagoula, Mississippi home from damage in a flood.
Photo: FEMA News Photo
Computer-enhanced image of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes are increasing in average intensity due to global warming.
Coast Guard officer looks for survivors from a helicopter in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Photo: NyxoLyno Cangemi/ U.S. Coast Guard
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