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Experts Break Down Hurricane Katrina

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November 1, 2005 | by Stephen Anzaldi

As New Orleans and the Gulf Coast continue to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Northwestern experts gathered recently to deliver varied perspectives on the lessons that can be learned from the destructive storm.

At a special seminar, “Hurricane Katrina: Preparation, Response and Rebuilding,” six faculty members from across the University gathered to discuss, among other topics, flood control management, the troublesome topography and history of New Orleans, media coverage of the event and the responsibilities of several layers of government, from local to federal.

Organized by the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, the public event attracted a full house at the Technological Institute and was Webcast live to the University community.

Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering, moderated the event, which featured the following participants and their commentary.

• Charles Dowding, professor of civil and environmental engineering, McCormick School, examined the levee and pump system in New Orleans and discussed where and how they failed and what can be done to better protect New Orleans from future hurricanes. Dowding ended his presentation by posing a general question for the audience to keep in mind in the years to come regarding the reconstruction of New Orleans. “When people talk about what needs to be done,” he said, “Is it to fix New Orleans? Is it to address all hurricane exposure issues in the southeastern United States? Or is it to come up with a national strategy to induce people to move out of harm’s way?”

• Kimberly Gray, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, McCormick School, reviewed environmental damage from the flood and pollution cleanup efforts, as well as the issue of wetland restoration, which she touted as an effective flood prevention/mitigation measure. When asked to predict what officials would do about contaminated soil, Gray said she thinks that, due to increasing pressure for residents to move back to the area, surface soil will be removed and contained in another place or covered.

• Henry Binford, associate professor of history, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, recounted the historical and social background of natural disasters in the New Orleans area. He detailed the city’s struggles to manipulate water flow over its lifetime for the purposes of farming and real estate development.

• Anne Johnsos, adjunct lecturer, Medill School of Journalism, focused on the role of the media in helping people follow and understand the many developing storylines. Through a series of taped clips, Johnsos replayed over-the-top broadcasts through which celebrity journalists injected their own exasperation into their live reports.

• Donald Haider, professor of management and strategy and director of the Public/Nonprofit Management Program, Kellogg School of Management, considered the relationships among local, state and federal governments in the disaster response. He asked audience members who they thought deserved blame for the inadequate response and who should take responsibility for the reconstruction.

• David Schulz, director of Northwestern’s Infrastructure Technology Institute, presented issues and strategies for rebuilding, including whether or not to rebuild, New Orleans. The events of Hurricane Katrina, he noted, revealed our dependence on an aging national infrastructure. Schulz also called for a national debate on coastal land use.

During a question and answer session, the panelists expressed concern that officials would make only minor fixes in restoring the city and region. “There are wonderful opportunities for us here in rebuilding New Orleans to make this a city of the future, to demonstrate how we can make a sustainable city in such a fragile environment,” Gray said.