“When the Levee Breaks”: What Have We Learned about Securing our Nation’s Critical Infrastructure After Natural Disasters?

Written by Priscilla Barbour

Securing our nation’s critical infrastructure assets from natural disasters is often overlooked. Historically, the U.S. has been reactive when it comes to guarding against natural disasters. No one understands the potentially devastating impacts of this strategy better than the residents of the Gulf Coast. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 caused widespread damage and took a tremendous toll on the regional economy. 80 years later, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf region in one of the most catastrophic weather-related disasters in American History. The common thread between these natural disasters goes beyond the breakdown of the levees built to protect them, but also highlights the long-term impact flood damage had on the region’s economic viability and social welfare.

In the cases of both the Great Mississippi Flood and Hurricane Katrina, it was known that the infrastructure in place to protect residents from extensive flood damage had critical vulnerabilities. The inability or unwillingness of government to proactively address these vulnerabilities left many communities devastated and many residents forced to deal with life-shattering consequences that could have been avoided. In both instances, hundreds of thousands were displaced, many lives were lost, and the greatest devastation occurred in less affluent African-American communities. Many of these individuals were unable to evacuate prior to the onset of the storms, and were prohibited from seeking shelter in neighboring counties and states by state and local law enforcement after the storms began.

The Great Mississippi Flood caused approximately $1 billion in direct and indirect damages in 1927 dollars. Today, this total would be the equivalent to $11 billion. Mississippi’s agriculture industry was stifled for the 1927 planting and harvesting seasons, and faced great difficulty the following year as well. After Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. economy was stymied by spikes in oil prices due to extensive damage to oil and gas infrastructure. The U.S. Gulf Coast region is home to over a quarter of the nation’s oil and gas production. After Hurricane Katrina, 90 percent of the oilrigs in the area were shut down and 20 of them were missing or severely damaged. Gas prices around the country rose to $4-$5 dollars per gallon in some of the larger cities as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The storm caused approximately $81 billion in property damage, and altered the nation’s energy sector and economy for several months following.

It took years to repair the levees after the Great Mississippi Flood. As a result of the flood, the U.S. began to establish a framework for emergency preparedness and disaster relief. This was the first time the federal government aided in the management of emergency response and rebuilding efforts after a natural disaster. New levee standards were adopted by the Mississippi River Commission, as the previous standards proved to be insufficient after the flood. Hurricane Katrina forced governments to rewrite operational and maintenance guidelines for all levees throughout the country and to reevaluate how the government should prepare for critical infrastructure breakdowns as a result of natural disasters. The storm highlighted critical flaws and systematic gaps that resulted in lost lives and widespread devastation. Eleven years later, many of the same issues are present. The levee structures surrounding New Orleans have been repaired, but they have been deemed inadequate to sustain in the event of another hurricane of similar magnitude.

As these two storms and their aftermath illustrate, emergency management and maintenance have historically evolved in response to catastrophe. Moving forward, federal, state, and local governments must take a proactive, integrated approach to securing the nation’s critical infrastructure assets in advance of natural disasters. Every level of government must work together to assess existing critical infrastructure vulnerabilities and move to make necessary upgrades and protections.  While this will require some expense on the front end, the return we receive in terms of lives spared and crises avoided will surely make the investment worthwhile.