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Three Years After: The Failure to Learn From Katrina

Nearly lost amid the political hoopla of two presidential nominating conventions is a sombre milestone. Today is the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's deadly strike on the Gulf of Mexico coast, a catastrophe that nearly destroyed New Orleans and, with its aftermath of botched rescue efforts, has done more than anything but the Iraq war to discredit the Bush presidency.

As if following some kind of karmic timetable, though, Tropical Storm Gustav is now gathering strength over the Caribbean and about to enter the Gulf. Forecasts indicate it will head toward Louisiana, meaning a possible deadly blow for New Orleans. The machinery of mass evacuations has cranked into motion across the Gulf coast. Fema and other federal agencies, having learned some lessons with Katrina, are pre-positioning aid and personnel.

And Republicans, whose convention to nominate John McCain for the presidency gets underway on Monday in St Paul, Minnesota, are panicking. White House officials say President Bush may opt out of his planned Monday speech, and there's talk of postponing the convention altogether. The potential spectacle of Republicans partying and launching political attacks on Barack Obama while a storm rains destruction on American communities would indeed hurt McCain's chances. It would seem callous - a Republican weakness to begin with - but also evoke images of the Katrina aftermath, when the Bush administration spent more time pinning blame on Democrats than on rescuing citizens trapped in flooded New Orleans.

The fact that Republicans are concerned almost wholly with how things look, not the actual threat of the storm to life and property, isn't surprising. The fact is, America's leaders - Republican and Democrat - never really learned the lessons of Katrina.

Katrina represented a failure of the government at all levels - not just in emergency management, but in the basic idea of government itself, protecting citizens from harm. In the decades before the storm hit, the US government embarked on an ambitious plan to protect New Orleans and its surrounding suburbs from hurricane storm surges. It managed to totally botch the job. Not only was the new levee system a patchwork, full of gaps and shoddy construction, some floodwalls were built using faulty designs and fell down soon after the water rose.

Moreover, as scientists learned more about hurricanes, it was clear by the 1980s that New Orleans would be destroyed if a hurricane hit it head-on, as floodwaters swamped its levees and filled the city like a soup bowl. Every summer, as new hurricanes roared over Gulf waters, the US played a game of hurricane roulette with one of its major cities. Yet nothing was done to address this mortal threat. Meanwhile, the city itself and its surrounding marshes were sinking into the sea, steadily opening it to greater risks.

New Orleans is an excellent proxy for the broader challenges posed by global warming, which will mean rising seas and (probably) bigger, more dangerous storms. The deltaic landscape of south Louisiana is changing very fast, so the risks from storms and flooding are rising faster than flat-footed, special interest-dominated American institutions are able to handle. In the coming decades, there will be more New Orleanses in America and elsewhere around the world.

Katrina provided an early warning, offering some valuable lessons on how to handle climate change. Protecting New Orleans from future storms would mean not only preserving a US city and a valuable cultural heritage. It would force institutions to reform and devise smarter policies that could be adapted to the coming challenges.

But New Orleans proved too politically marginal to get much attention from Washington, and protecting and rebuilding it - which ought to be a national priority - soon became a tertiary concern. The result: The levee system is being upgraded, at a cost of $13bn. But the upgrades only protect against relatively weak storms. We're still playing hurricane roulette.

Forecasters say Gustav will strengthen to a Category 4 storm, with wind speeds between 131-155 mph (210-249 km/hr), and would easily overwhelm the levees if it comes close enough to the city. That could undo the past three years of rebuilding, and destroy what Katrina missed.

This is bad for New Orleans, of course. I am sceptical, given that the institutions charged with protecting it are so weak and slow-moving, that the city will still be there a century from now. But more ominously still, this shows how fundamentally unready the US government is to tackle the coming challenges of climate change. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008 John McQuaid is a Washington-based journalist, specialising in science, environment, and various forms of government dysfunction. He is the co-author, with Mark Schleifstein, of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, about Hurricane Katrina.