Katrina and Sound Science

David B. Sandalow
David Sandalow, Inaugural Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
David B. Sandalow Former Brookings Expert, Inaugural Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy - School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

September 28, 2005

Tomorrow it will be one month since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. The suffering caused by this storm is well known, but no less tragic for being so. Today countless thousands of Americans grieve relatives lost in the storm, and many more search for ways to restore shattered lives and livelihoods. As we join together as a nation to rebuild this region, our thoughts and prayers are with them all.

Many observers have characterized Katrina as a defining moment in our nation’s history. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich said the impact of Katrina will be “30 to 100 times bigger than 9/11,” arguing that the “after effects of this extreme disaster will last longer and be more complex than any domestic event since World War II.” Commentators have focused on the importance of this event to race relations, anti-poverty programs, the federal budget, homeland security and more.

Then, this past weekend our Gulf Coast was struck by another storm. Hurricane Rita was smaller and less powerful than Katrina, but only by comparison to its predecessor could Rita be considered a minor event. More than three million people were evacuated from their homes, causing traffic jams that stretched for more than one hundred miles. The full death toll is not yet known but, including fatalities that occurred during the evacuation of Houston, appears to number at least 30. The governor of Texas estimates damages exceeding $8 billion in his state alone.

Your hearing, Mr. Chairman, is timely. The two hurricanes that struck our nation in the past month raise important questions about science policy, environmental policy, and the intersection between the two. How can we better predict natural disasters of this kind? Will our response to Katrina be shaped by the best available science? What forces of global change shaped these two disasters, and what impact will these forces have in the years to come?

Because these questions are so important, today I am recommending the Senate ask the US National Academy of Sciences to examine them. Specifically, I recommend the Senate ask the US National Academy of Sciences to conduct a major new study on extreme weather events, including hurricanes, droughts and floods. The report would assess the state of scientific knowledge in several areas, including (i) our ability to predict extreme weather events and how that ability might be improved, (ii) the causes of extreme weather events, both natural and anthropogenic, (iii) land restoration in the Mississippi Delta, both as part of the response to Katrina and to protect against future storms, and (iv) human health and other risks related to the clean-up of toxic chemicals released as a result of Katrina. This study should be done in phases, with an early product intended to help guide immediate recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast region, and then an ongoing and more comprehensive program.