Sunday, September 04, 2005

Ferguson on Katrina

Niall Ferguson who is a professor of history here at Harvard University has a nice piece in The Telegraph

in which he asks whether natural disasters can be and should be abused for political, religious, and ideological goals. You may guess what's the answer.

He starts with the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755. Voltaire argued that the earthquake had shown that Nature was powerful and there was no God to defeat it. For Voltaire, disasters were evidence against religion as well as against Leibniz who had claimed that ours was the best world one can imagine; instead, they were a reason to believe natural sciences and natural philosophy. Alexander Pope, on the other hand, stated that the world would be less perfect without such disasters; a pretty deep point.

(Incidentally, tropical cyclones are an important part of the air circulation system, and they often bring rain to very dry regions.)

The main goal of Ferguson's article is, of course, to show how tasteless and rationally unjustifiable it is for various groups to use the natural disasters as an additional tool to support their ideologies and agendas. While it is obvious to Ferguson, me, as well as anyone who has not lost her mind that a hurricane is unpredictable and has nothing to do with our sins, with the religious beliefs of islamic extremists, with the war in Iraq, or with the Kyoto protocol, there are unfortunately many people - including the people in the Academia - who don't get it even 250 years after Voltaire's precious remarks.

The following groups were an obvious choice for Ferguson: the 18th century catholic priests who said that the earthquake was a punishment for our sins; the islamic terrorists who cheer Katrina as a powerful "Private" who was sent by God to join jihad; the so-called environmentalists who cheer the hurricane as a new powerful argument that should help the U.S. to sign the so-called Kyoto protocol; and more generally American "liberals" who believe that most of the tragedy is apparently caused by the war in Iraq and maybe the tax cuts, too.

(I put the word "liberals" into quotation marks because for me, as a European, a person from the continent where these classical ideas got started, the word still represents neo-liberals and libertarians who like freedom - the word itself is derived from "liberty". The U.S. "liberals" today seem to have exactly the opposite tendency. Let me continue to use the adjective "left-wing" and the nouns "socialists", "communists", "feminists", and "environmentalists". Thanks.)

Since 1755, the information technology and theoretical physics have both made a tremendous progress. But when one looks at the opinions of generic professors today, it is hard not to see that the quality of political and philosophical thought has peaked a few centuries ago and deteriorated markedly since the golden days of Enlightenment.

A majority of "intellectuals" today seems to be driven by new kinds of superstitions and irrational and perverted religions - whether or not they call it a "religion" (in some cases, they want to describe their religion as "universally anti-religious" which does not guarantee that the irrational essence is any different from the religions called this way). They are either not willing or not able to separate these superstitions and their political beliefs from natural science and fair and rational thinking in general. Too bad that it apparently includes a large fraction of the U.S. academic world.

In some sense, the public is doing a better job in attributing the hurricane and related problems. One may find it more natural to blame the Democratic LA governer Kathleen Blanco, but a goal of this text is to say that it is not a right idea either. A technical point: some people blame the spending cuts. The non-partisan FactCheck.ORG has just released a report that proves that it is ridiculous. It shows that even if Katrina waited until 2015 - the expected completion of the better levees - it would still flood New Orleans (via A similar conclusion holds not only for the levees but for hundreds of other aspects of the disaster: certain people simply want to believe that Allah or the Government is and should be omnipotent so that it can easily cool down the whole planet, forbid hurricanes, and make everyone rich and happy. Laws of physics paint a very different picture.


  1. Thanks for the link to!

  2. Lubos,

    Very simply there are three parts to this:

    1. Planning for the future - this was not funded, and even if funded, would not have been ready for Katrina

    2. Routine maintenance - the funding for this too was cut. The disaster would not have been as great, material and personnel would have been more readily available post-levee-breach, etc.

    3. FEMA response - the Bush FEMA did not even follow its own December 2004 script for response to such an emergency.

    The Bush admin gets failing grades on all three, especially since he inherited a solid FEMA and New Orleans program (unlike, say the economy, where one might argue that the Clinton economy was already headed downwards).

    These "someone expected Bush to stop the hurricane" is the silly strawman that serious people should not waste time on.


  3. Lubos said:

    " A technical point: some people blame the spending cuts. The non-partisan FactCheck.ORG has just released a report that proves that it is ridiculous. It shows that even if Katrina waited until 2015 - the expected completion of the better levees - it would still flood New Orleans (via"

    I must point out that you have completely misinterpretted the statement made by the army enginnering corp, which states that even a enhanced levee would not stand a hurricane stronger than category 3.

    Water can over a levee in one of two ways:

    1.Strong wind cause very high water waves, exceeding the height of the levee. Therefore some water run over the top of the levee, causing flood, even though the integrity of the levee may be intact.

    2.The levee is of low structural strength and when it's weakened by excessive amount of water, collapses and the water flow in through the breach, causing flood.

    You must make a clear distinction between the two cases. Clearly under a category 5, the water wave is so high, that it is inevitable that some amount of water will top over the levee, causing certain amount of flood, unless it is built to an unrealistic height. However the integrity of the levee is sounding, it should not breach even if being topped over. And the amount of flooding is certainly much less than the case where the levee is breached.

    That is exactly what the army engineering corp say that a finished levee upgrade should be able to sustain category 3. What it means is any thing above category 3, topping over will be inevitable due to the height limitation. But the integrity of the levee itself really should be strong enough to withstand a category 5 without problem.

    What happened is the levee was not breached at the height of Catrina, but rather, a few hours after the worst of Catrina had passed. Clearly, if the levee was not build using soil, but using concrete. If it was slightly stronger, it may not breach. There may still be flooding due to huge waves topping over the levee, but it would not develop to the scale where the whole city is submerged.

    Whether the water just top over or breaches the structure of the levee, That's two completely different scenary. And Bush's fund cut causes the much worse scenary to happen. So it was a 20% natural disaster and a 80% man made one.

  4. Lubos:
    If you read a little bit further on the link that you pointed to, you see that it already explained the point I made above very clearly:

    "Breerword: We knew if it was going to be a Category 5, some levees and some flood walls would be overtopped. We never did think they would actually be breached."

    Overtopping and breaching of a levee are two completely different concepts. They say an enhanced levee should prevent overtopping up to category 3. But as far as breaching goes, any levee with sound structure should withstand category 5 without a problem.