A Tale of Two Hurricane Cities

December 1, 2007 marks the end of another hurricane season in south Florida, and for the second year in a row we are blessed with a clean getaway. For now, we can exhale. Yet more than two years after hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, it's anything but easy in the Big Easy.

In August this year I took a vacation to Cancún, Mexico. The Yucatan peninsula is a locale I adore and have visited extensively before. But having lived in Florida for the past three years and having been through three hurricanes during that time, I had more than a fleeting sense of trepidation over the state in which I'd find my beloved Mexican Caribbean jewel. Recalling the damage an unexpectedly fierce hurricane Wilma did to south Florida in just a few hours on a late October 2005 day after ravaging Cancún for four times as long, I was prepared to see evidence of recovery still in progress.

Prepared, at least, to spot more than a few blemishes on the face of the normally pristine hotel zone, and certainly prepared to see the aftereffects of the storm in the outlying, natural environment. My expectations couldn't have been more off. Judging by the looks of things in Cancún, you'd never know there was a Hurricane Wilma which came on shore less than two years ago as a category four storm with winds exceeding 150 miles an hour. Between October 20 and 24, 2005 Wilma dumped over five feet of rain on Cancún, double or triple the amount that Hurricane Katrina unleashed on New Orleans only seven weeks earlier. While both storms peaked as category five hurricanes while over water, Wilma came ashore with greater force, and stayed much longer, than Katrina when it made landfall. Where Katrina hit New Orleans, it was a weak category three, if not a category two.

Yet we've all seen the images of what happened in New Orleans and environs. How then, do you account for the drastic differences in both the level of devastation and recovery between the two cities, each hit by major hurricanes within the same sixty days? In digging for the answers to this question, there is much to be gleaned about the economic and political agendas of two North American neighbors, Mexico and the United States, and a critical lesson for Americans to learn as well. As cities New Orleans and Cancún have little in common.

The former is a historically-quaint, centuries-old settlement that has grown large in a sinking land bowl flanked by the mighty Mississippi river to the south and Lake Pontchartrain to the north; the latter, a merely forty-year, newly developed world-class vacation destination built primarily on a narrow eight mile strip of land bordered by a natural lagoon to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east. What they share other than their sea-level elevation is that they're both hemmed in by water. Furthermore, both cities have a history of hurricanes, know they are situated in hurricane zones, and know the risks. But of the two only only Cancún has chosen to consciously act on that knowledge, both preventatively and retroactively. One could argue Cancún has had a decided advantage over a place like New Orleans all along. Its development is recent enough to have benefitted from hurricane-resistant technology and forethought, and clearly it has done so.

Yet since before Cancún was officially established as a city in 1972, the pummeling New Orleans received by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 served as an alarming wake-up call. Arguably, New Orleans had forty years to fortify itself against a repeat performance, and countless government mandates and funds with which to work, yet the system of dikes and levees surrounding the city - its primary defense against flooding during a major storm - failed miserably. With two years of Hurricane Katrina post-mortem under our belts, most Americans now understand the resulting devastation of New Orleans was a man-made rather than natural disaster.

After 1965, the US Congress assigned the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the city from a "100-year storm". The resulting planning and work done by the Corps was riddled with engineering errors and utterly sub-standard for protection from anything more than a moderate-strength hurricane. The Corps' estimation of a 100-year event fell short of a category four hurricane, even though Betsy had been exactly that and was originally predicted to arrive even stronger. Moreover, protecting the city from a major storm was never anyone's top priority. Tales of local government corruption, funds misappropriation, and even failed local ballot propositions are legendary. And with every passing decade, as the city was spared further hurricanes, the people became more complacent and their sense of denial grew.

Denial, as they now know, will no more fortify levees or prevent flooding than wishful thinking. Hurricane survival requires preparation, and preparation means intentional efforts are made in building construction, land use, water management, and population education. More telling than the difference in the collective mindsets of Cancún and New Orleans is their respective recovery efforts. While most major hotel/resort structures in Cancún were already designed to withstand major hurricane damage (and those in New Orleans were not) the greater area of concern to Cancún was not loss or damage to structures, but to the beach, the primary tourist draw on which its economy depends.

After Hurricane Wilma washed away eight miles of Cancún's beautiful beach, the Mexican government paid $24 million to a Belgian firm to vacuum up offshore sand roughly 20 miles off the coast and pump it back to resort-front beaches. The result? Cancún's beach front is now roughly twice as wide as it was before the storm. Imagine, then, if New Orleans had received the type of immediate, hands-on, no-holds-barred infusion of support that the Mexican government showered upon just Cancún's beaches alone. Roughly $2.

3 billion in insurance claims in Cancun were filed in the aftermath of Wilma, but many hotel and resort owners took the opportunity to go upgrade the quality of their rebuilt properties by adding condos, thereby expanding their mix of accommodations while planning for future growth. Many single family homes in Mexico are also built quite differently than in the US - with metal-reinforced concrete rather than wood frames - and survived Wilma with minimal or no damage. By contrast, stories of under-or inadequately insured homes and properties in New Orleans are legendary. Many homeowners did not carry flood insurance, necessary when water damage occurs from rising rather than falling water. (Hurricane insurance only covers wind damage). Adding insult to injury, many of the most seriously damaged neighborhoods in New Orleans were occupied by either the poorest or oldest of the city's population.

Both groups are notorious for having not been insured at all, and as a result have nothing to go back to. At last count, only about 52% of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population of 450,000 has returned. Neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward and parts of New Orleans East are still nearly vacant. So, what insights does this comparison yield? A few become obvious: 1.

Money first, people second. Governments are most concerned with protecting their economic interests,and the US is no exception. Whether disaster is natural or man-made, when government protects its cash cows or wealthiest citizens, it does so in the name of protecting its own economic health.

The poor, uneducated, uninformed, or underprivileged often find themselves on their own. 2. Do not expect your government to save you when disaster strikes. It may provide aid but its resources are limited and it simply cannot save everyone.

If you live in a disaster-susceptible area, don't expect a bail-out. Even if you don't live in a high-risk area, self-reliance is a virtue you CAN afford and won't regret having when you need it. 3.

Our government is what we make it. The citizens of New Orleans elected their state and local officials. They had numerous opportunities to vote on how to spend funds and sadly, the majority chose not to spend resources on hurricane prevention and flood protection.

"We reap what we sow" may sound trite, but it's true. All too often it seems dire circumstances are required for behavioral change. As I have learned firsthand from living in Florida, there are two sides to every coin. Paradise? Certainly, but at a price, one I and millions of south Floridians are now painfully aware of and willing to pay, as I suspect are the nearly one million full-time inhabitants of Cancun. Yet we're lucky, Florida and Cancun reap enough tourism riches to qualify for government rescue. If only the citizens of New Orleans had been so fortunate, and so enlightened.

Copyright (c) 2007 Karen Talavera.

Karen Talavera is a keen observer, critical thinker and aspiring book author with a passion for writing, learning and teaching. She lives in South Florida and sounds off frequently on her blog of the same name, Sound Off. Read more of Karen's writing at http://worldwidesoundoff.blogspot.com .

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