It would have cost a few bucks to take care of some of these problems. A multi-agency task force, for which Penland served as a scientific adviser, came up with a price tag for protecting the Louisiana coastline from a hurricane like Katrina. It would cost about $14 billion, the panel concluded.
It sounded like a lot of money five years ago. It doesn't sound like much today.
So what went wrong? With so much evidence, and such compelling testimony, why did Katrina catch us with our levees down?
New Orleans is dying because nearly everyone failed to heed the call to arms. In the months, and years, ahead we'll see enough finger-pointing to last us a lifetime. And most of it won't get us anywhere.
The system failed because it is inherently flawed, all the way from the city council to the White House.
It is programmed to respond to disasters rather than prevent them. And when the stakes are high, and the probabilities low, it nearly always opts for short-term gain. A politician who can win funds for a new yacht marina is more likely to gain popularity than one who fights to replace a levee that seems to be working just fine, at least for now.
It's just a lot easier to get money to build monuments, whether it's a new swimming pool for the neighborhood kids or a multibillion-dollar space telescope, than it is to get the funds to take care of them once they're built.
There's a lot of glamour in creation, but not much in maintenance.
So Congress funds trillions of dollars for new highways, but not $14 billion to help protect against a hurricane that might not have hit for decades. By then, that would be someone else's problem.
Then is now.
And tragically, many of those body bags are going to be filled.
Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.