Most of the lessons the nation’s pundits seem to be taking away from Hurricane Katrina concern politics, which is what you’d expect from a collection of liberal-arts majors. But engineers looking for less perishable insights are likely to focus on a series of lessons about technologies that worked or didn’t work during the disaster. Here are five such lessons.
1. Don’t bet against gravity. As any physicist will tell you, gravity is one of the four fundamental forces in the universe. You can fight gravity by trying to fly or go with the flow by building dams that harness the power of falling water, but you can’t avoid it. New Orleans has been trying to avoid the inevitable for years, holding out against the effects of gravity on surrounding waters even as the city sank deeper and deeper below sea level. Canals and levees that once offered protection will become the city’s undoing as it continues sinking in the years ahead. So Denny Hastert had it right when he questioned the logic of rebuilding New Orleans. We’ll always need a port at the mouth of the Mississippi, but any effort to restore New Orleans to its former glory probably should be called “The Atlantis Project.”
2. Electromagnetism trumps politics every time. Another one of those fundamental forces that we thought we understood pretty well was electromagnetism, the energy that makes lights and radios work. But it shouldn’t take a prolonged power failure for emergency preparedness officials to figure out that communications devices relying on rechargeable batteries won’t be usable for very long once the lights go out. They need to switch to radios that use off-the-shelf batteries rather than cellphone-like recharging systems. And the federal government needs to mandate a system for sharing frequencies so each hamlet and parish doesn’t buy radios that can’t communicate beyond the town line.
3. Distributed networks are more resilient. The week before Katrina hit, activists in Massachusetts were celebrating a Coast Guard decision that would make it harder to build a natural-gas terminal in Fall River. That sort of attitude is the reason why no new terminals or refineries have been built in the U.S. in decades, and New England is at the far end of a fragile hydrocarbon distribution network centered in the Gulf states. Katrina should be a wakeup call for people who can’t bear the idea of nearby oil and gas facilities that their futures are at risk. The nation’s energy complex needs to be less concentrated — meaning putting some of it in the Northeast — or it could collapse in both natural and manmade disasters.
4. Vertical agility saves lives. Hurricane Katrina demonstrates how crucial helicopters can be in disaster relief. When surface mobility is impeded by flooding and wrecked transportation arteries, vertical agility may be the only way of helping survivors fast. That’s why it is important to move ahead with efforts to modernize the aging rotorcraft of the Coast Guard and National Guard. It is also a reason for those organizations to take a close look at the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey, the only aircraft that combines the vertical mobility of a helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing airplane. Having passed its operational evaluation with flying colors, Osprey is now available to civil as well as military users.
5. Better weather satellites are needed. One reason Katrina was not a repeat of the 1900 Galveston storm disaster was the early warning provided by weather satellites. But there are many readings current satellites can’t take — at least with the precision that emerging technology makes possible. The Air Force and NOAA are jointly developing a next-generation weather satellite that will be better. Space News reports this week that the federal government can’t find the money to keep the program on track. Maybe the government ought to rethink who it’s more important to protect — Americans or Iraqis.
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