Perspective: In Katrina’s Wake
By Dean Joseph Helble
Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the levees in New Orleans painfully demonstrated to a technologically dependent nation that no engineered structure is infallible. Levees — whether in New Orleans or elsewhere — are designed and built to withstand a certain level of storm. Decisions about the protective strength of levees are not based on engineering considerations alone, but on assessments of the probabilities of potential storm damage and on funding priorities. Perhaps the public understands these cost-benefit tradeoffs at the time of construction, but as levees hold year after year through storm after storm, it becomes easy to forget their design and structural limits.
In the wake of the Katrina disaster, it is tempting to rush ahead and build a structure just like before, but bigger, stronger, and more durable — to engineer and build even better protection against the next big storm. We certainly have the technical know-how to do so.
But engineers should also be pushing society to look at the bigger picture and debate broader issues. We should be asking whether rebuilding levees is the only solution we should consider — and whether this is a sustainable solution. We should be posing questions not only about how to build, but about what to build, where to build, and how to live within the constraints imposed by the local environment. Can we, for example, mitigate the next storm by partially restoring depleted coastlines and wetlands to absorb the next onslaught?
As New Orleans is rebuilt, engineers will not be the ones charged with making many of these broad policy decisions. But engineers have the expertise to raise the questions and make sure that political leaders understand the tradeoffs. It is our responsibility to society to do so.