FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans Catastrophe Illustrates the Value of Foresight

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, is there any noise? If a futurist speaks but no one listens, is there any foresight?

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," said President Bush in an interview with Diane Sawyer, in which he discussed the federal government's response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina earlier this week. "They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will."

In hindsight, the breaching of New Orleans' levee system is an obvious outcome, given that the levees themselves are decades old. Indeed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has considered serious flooding from a hurricane strike on New Orleans one of the top three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country" since 2001. And on Sunday, the day before the storm hit the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an article noting:

A computer model run by the LSU Hurricane Center late Saturday confirmed that [Katrina was following the track of Hurricane Betsy, which struck Louisiana in 1965]. It indicated the metropolitan area was poised to see a repeat of Betsy's flooding, or worse, with storm surge of as much as 16 feet moving up the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet and topping levees in Chalmette and eastern New Orleans, and pushing water into the 9th Ward and parts of Mid-City. High water flowing from Lake Pontchartrain through St. Charles Parish also would flood over levees into Kenner, according to the model.

The Times-Picayune also did an expose on the dangers of a direct hurricane strike on the Big Easy back in 2002. A post in the Huffington Post cites several other predictions placing the levee system at risk. The warnings had been sounded... yet no one in power seemed to be listening, culminating in our President responding to a national catastrophe with an astonishing level of cluelessness.

So if people with foresight did identify the risks long before this past week, why weren't they listened to? Or if they were listened to, why wasn't their advice acted upon? The usual combination of denial, political wrangling, limited budgets and competing priorities surely derailed any proactive efforts. And granted, a colossal storm such as Katrina would be difficult to cope with even under the best of circumstances and with unlimited resources. But no amount of "would, coulda, shoulda" can help the people of New Orleans today, whose world is crumbling into a literal cesspool of chaos, lawlessness, hunger and disease that will likely get worse before it gets better.

Hurricane Katrina now joins the long list of natural and man-made disasters whose impact could have been at least blunted through careful future thinking and scenario planning... as well as planners and government officials who take such foresight seriously. As the past week has proven, it's not enough for smart people to analyze future trends and risks. Their voices need to be heard by those who can turn foresight into action, and make a difference.

UPDATE: Genius Now, Minding the Planet, BuzzMachine and WorldChanging all have excellent posts that echo and elaborate on this theme. See also: