'World must wake up to lessons of Katrina'

Posted: 3 September 2005

The overwhelming human and financial impacts of Hurricane Katrina are powerful evidence that political and economic decisions made in the United States and other countries have failed to account for our dependence on a healthy resource base, according to an assessment released today by the Worldwatch Institute.

Alteration of the Mississippi River and the destruction of wetlands at its mouth have left the area around New Orleans abnormally vulnerable to the forces of nature. According to many scientists, the early results of global warming - 90 degree Fahrenheit water temperatures in the Gulf and rising sea levels - may have exacerbated the destructive power of Katrina.

"The catastrophe now unfolding along the U.S. Gulf Coast is a wake-up call for decision makers around the globe," says Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. "If the world continues on its current course - massively altering the natural world and further increasing fossil fuel consumption - future generations may face a chain of disasters that make Katrina-scale catastrophes a common feature of life in the 21st century."

"The appalling images from New Orleans demonstrate that the world's richest country is not immune from the need to respect natural systems and to invest in their protection," continued Flavin. "This will likely be the most expensive weather-related disaster the world has ever faced."

Key lessons

According to an assessment by Worldwatch researchers, the long-term lessons of Katrina include:

  • Maintaining the integrity of natural ecosystems should be a priority: Indiscriminate economic development and ecologically destructive policies have left many communities more vulnerable to disasters than they realize.

    This, together with rapid population growth in vulnerable areas, has contributed to worldwide economic losses from weather-related catastrophes totaling $567 billion over the last 10 years, exceeding the combined losses from 1950 through 1989.

    Losses in 2004 exceeded $100 billion for the second time ever, and a new record will almost certainly be set this year once Katrina's damages are totaled.

  • Short-term thinking is a dangerous approach to policy: During the past few years, the U.S. government has diverted funding from disaster preparedness to help finance the Iraq War, and has reduced protections for wetlands in order to spur economic development. Both decisions are now exacting costs that far exceed the money saved.

    Natural ecosystems such as wetlands and forests are often more valuable when left intact so as to protect communities from floods, landslides, drought, and other natural occurrences. Failure to protect ecosystems contributed to the massive loss of life when the tsunamis swept across the Indian Ocean last year and when Hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 people in Central America in 1998.

  • The links between climate change and weather-related catastrophes need to be addressed by decision makers: Although no specific storm can be definitively link to climate change, scientists agree that warm water is the fuel that increases the intensity of such storms and that tropical seas have increased in temperature by up to 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century. (Katrina transformed rapidly from a Category 1 to a Category 5 hurricane when it passed from the Atlantic Ocean to the much warmer Gulf of Mexico.)

    In the next few decades, water temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise, greatly increasing the vulnerability of many communities. Global warming and its anticipated effects on the hydrological cycle will make some areas more vulnerable as storms, floods, and droughts increase in frequency and intensity.

  • There is an urgent need to diversify energy supplies: The national and global economic impact of Hurricane Katrina is growing by the day, with consumers around the world now paying significantly more for energy than they were a week ago.

    Decades of failure to invest in new energy options has left the world dependent on oil and natural gas that are concentrated in some of the world's most vulnerable regions - the U.S. Gulf Coast, the Persian Gulf, and the Niger Delta in Africa. Biofuels and other renewable resources now represent viable alternatives to fossil fuels, which are not only vulnerable to natural disasters but could have a big impact on the severity of future disasters.