Katrina Proved Experts' Early Warnings Right

No one knows better than Shea Penland how it feels to be vindicated by a horrible, unthinkable, disaster.

For years, Penland had warned that a powerful hurricane could wipe out New Orleans, but while some listened, few chose to act.

Today, he's a refugee from his own nightmare. His century-old home in New Orleans' fashionable Garden District is empty. Penland had stayed through the hurricane's horrific winds and torrential rain, but when his emergency generator finally ran out of fuel he boarded up his house, and with his golden retriever at his side, headed for higher ground.

"We've got a terrible problem," he told me five years ago when we talked about the future of the lower Mississippi Delta. Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans, had devoted much of his life to the study of coastal Louisiana, and he sensed that the end would come sooner, rather than later, to a city he had grown to love.

Few Listened

While not exactly a prophet of doom, Penland spoke bluntly in the winter of 2000 about the fate he foresaw for New Orleans. Ancient levees that protected the city from the Mississippi and nearby Lake Pontchartrain were inadequate and in desperate need of upgrading. The barrier islands that protected the coastline from storm surges were eroding away at an alarming rate, and little was being done to restore them. The land on which New Orleans and many other communities sat was slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

And his was not the only voice. Chip Groat, then director of the U.S. Geological Survey, warned in early 2000 that "New Orleans will likely be on the verge of extinction by this time next century."

He was wrong, we now know. It came a lot sooner.

A few people listened. In an impassioned plea for more federal funds to upgrade levees and flood control equipment, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., told the Senate late last year of a New Orleans emergency worker who had collected several thousand body bags, just in case the levees failed.

"Let's hope that never happens," she told the Senate.

But it did.

Steps Not Taken

In the aftermath of that tragedy, many will likely seek comfort in the old notion that there's little that could have been done to stop the onslaught of Katrina. No one knows how to control a hurricane. Nature will have its way.

But as Penland and others warned repeatedly over the last couple of decades, lots could have been done. Those critical coastal islands have been eroding so quickly that many are half the size they were just a century ago. There were villages and plantations on islands that are now being lost to the sea.

They could have been helped in their struggle to survive. We know a lot about how to reduce coastal erosion. Even a few trees and plants can help.

Levees that were designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane could have been upgraded to Category 5 protection.

And the ancient pumps that are vital to keeping New Orleans dry could have been replaced. Despite claims by some politicians that they were adequate, eight of those 22 pumps are now underwater and inoperable.

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.

The Flaw: Short-Term Fixations

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.