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Panel explores 'unnatural' Katrina disaster

Although Hurricane Katrina was a "natural" disaster, there are lessons to be learned from some of the highly unnatural disasters that followed in its wake, a panel of experts told a crowd gathered in Kirsch Auditorium on Nov. 15.

Sponsored by the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS), the talk was the fifth in a series of symposia asking the "Big Questions After Big Hurricanes." This symposium was titled, "What's So Natural About Natural Disasters?"

"America had expectations that the government would respond," said the Class of 1947 Career Development Associate Professor Meg Jacobs, one of the three speakers.

Jacobs is currently working on a book called "Panic at the Pump: How the Energy Crisis Changed American Politics." She focused her talk, "Natural Disaster and the Unnatural Bush Response," on the similarities between Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1,200 people and left the Gulf Coast devastated on Aug. 29, and former President Nixon's response to the energy crisis more than 30 years ago. Both presidents were reluctant to respond with big governmental interventions in spite of popular expectations.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Bush asked Americans to drive less as gas prices spiked. "Bush took this appeal toward conservation straight from Nixon's playbook," Jacobs said. 

In the 1970s state officials used more fuel-efficient cars. The Indianapolis 500 became the Indianapolis 450. Conservation was seen as the answer, rather than government intervention, said Jacobs. She suggested that Bush's response, seen as a major political gaffe to many, may have been far more calculated.

"If people see the government as ineffective in responding to disasters, they (the Bush administration) would have succeeded in their goal of undermining the legitimacy of government," said Jacobs. "He was slow to act on Katrina because fast action is more FDR than W." 

"The right historical analogy" is Nixon, said Jacobs. Although the Katrina response might have caused a "short-term decline in Bush's popularity," the long-term goal of undermining big government has been more than accomplished, she said.

Hurricane Katrina highlighted a number of aspects of technological systems, said Professor David Mindell of STS and the Engineering Systems Division.

"How dependent are we on technological systems?" Mindell asked in his portion of the symposia. Disasters like Katrina shed light on our dependencies. These items are "human-built creations with all the vulnerabilities of any other human-built creation," Mindell said.

While traffic was gridlocked on one side of the highway during the evacuation, the other side of the highway stood empty, said Mindell. "Whatever planning was going on, they really weren't thinking about a large-scale system," said Mindell. Additionally, a car-dependent evacuation was not appropriate for the many New Orleans residents without cars.

Natural disasters offer the opportunity to re-examine the systems we depend on and how they might be improved. "It is only when a system is not doing its job that it intrudes itself onto our view," said Mindell.

The devastating and selective impact on the poor was a deeply unnatural part of Hurricane Katrina, said Assistant Professor David Jones of STS.

Pointing to a number of disasters throughout history, Jones said all of them had one thing in common: "It is always the poor and marginalized populations who are most at risk."

Some disasters are worse than others. The poorest precincts with the most minorities were the most vulnerable during the Chicago heat wave of 1995. Compared to wealthier citizens, the poor were less likely to have air conditioners, less likely to have extensive social networks to turn to for help, and less likely to live in neighborhoods where they could safely open windows, he said.

During winter weather events, it is the poor and the homeless who suffer the greatest losses, said Jones. Although earthquakes affect people across the class spectrum, it is still the segments of society who can afford earthquake-safe buildings and houses that are the safest, he said.

"We need to spend less time focusing on the novelty and predictability of natural disasters and more time recognizing that we already do know much of what we need to know to mitigate the problems produced by them," Jones said.

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