Do Not Rebuild the Levees
According to an article in today’s Washington Post, independent inspectors believe attempts underway to rebuild the New Orleans levees are using substandard materials and will thus produce a levee system weaker than the one that failed during Katrina. The Army Corps of Engineers disputes these claims but admits the levees will require ongoing reconstruction after the projected June 1 completion date and will not be able to withstand a storm the magnitude of Katrina.
The details of this dispute are not the key issue here; the fundamental problem is that government should not reconstruct the levees at all. The Katrina disaster occurred mainly because government spent billions constructing these levees in the first place; without this intervention, people would not have been living in areas well-below sea level. Repeating the initial mistake is an incredible waste of resources. More generally, government-subsidized flood insurance, and attempts by the Corps to promote human activity in areas where Mother Nature never intended, make no economic sense.
The Katrina episode illustrates well a general theme of this blog: to fix a problem, first get rid of the government intervention that caused or exacerbated the problem. Nothing can prevent hurricanes. But when governments encourage stupid behavior – living in areas below sea level – major disasters become far more likely.