I’ve just been reading hurricane news until my eyes start going flashy, for the last several days. (we have no tv, luckily, so it’s all computer screen for me.) It is 9/11 horrible, tsunami horrible. It feels the same — that what I’m seeing is impossible, but that I have a responsibility to witness, as if it hurts the people there if I stop reading.
But it is worse than those other disasters. Because people have known it was coming and yet the government didn’t take the preventive steps it could, and clearly made no serious plans for the aftermath.
We knew that the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans, either by hurricane or burst levee, was likely to happen in our lifetimes. We’ve known this for decades, and in the last 5 or 10 years there have been louder and more urgent voices raised about it. Scientists said there would likely be tens of thousands of casualties, roads gone, water and power nonfunctioning, etc. Planners knew in advance that many people would have no car to drive them out of the city. Yet, we are seeing the result of woefully, criminally inadequate planning.
No effort to evacuate the tens of thousands of carless residents beforehand. Hopeless chain of command in the aftermath, no central plan, no backup communications methods for authorities. People saved from the flood, deposited at “safe sites”, are now dying of dehydration because no-one has gotten military planes, or the fleet of little boats, or high-draft trucks, to bring in fucking bottled water.
The first thing that should happen when you become mayor of New Orleans, or governor of Louisiana, or director of FEMA, is that someone sits you down and says: there’s a 1/275* chance that New Orleans will catastrophically flood this year. Here’s our evolving plan for when it happens. But clearly that didn’t happen. Why? Scientists said, we can mitigate this by shoring up the barrier wetlands and reinforcing the levees; the federal money for these projects got pulled. Why?
Partly it has to do with the money needed and political cowardice, partly with racism and callous disregard for the poor. But I think it also comes from cultivated ignorance — from a mistrust and ignorance of science. I think they didn’t believe it would happen.
The science said it was inevitable, but the gut said it was impossible.
Tens of thousands of casualties in a major US city? Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons? A major chunk of US export capability and oil processing, shut down? The city uninhabitable for months? Read some of those articles above, from a sampling at Making Light, and maybe your gut will say the same: they are wrong, it can’t be true. But the scientists had no doubt, just some uncertainty about the timing. (Ditto for San Francisco, Tokyo, pandemic flu, etc.)
Mistrust and misunderstanding of science is a problem that’s getting worse, because it’s part of the agenda of a powerful group of people to promote mistrust of science and cripple science education in the US. This will kill people, by the hundreds of thousands or the millions, here and around the world. As understanding of and respect for science decreases in the US, policy makers and voters alike will rely more and more on their gut. But the science will be right, and the gut will be wrong.
* This number is from the “1/6 chance in 50 years” mentioned here, plus a simplifying assumption that the chances were evenly distributed across years, plus calculations by my staff mathematician.
A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)