AN E-MAIL THAT showed up in my inbox the other day contained a photograph of the modern floodgates that keep Venice from being inundated by the Adriatic Sea. Below it was a picture of Holland's high-tech dams, which rise as much as 40 feet above the waves. A third photo showed London's futuristic-looking flood barriers, a series of semicircular silver gates along the Thames that can be raised or lowered as needed to regulate tidal heaves surging up from the North Sea.
Following these images of impressive European flood control technology came a picture from New Orleans. It showed a section of a broken, low-tech, decidedly unimpressive concrete levee surrounded by water. Sneered an accompanying message: "Way to go, Corps of Engineers!"
Whether it is fair to compare New Orleans's flood-control system with Europe's, or whether those European barriers are as effective as they are photogenic, I couldn't say. Nonetheless, that e-mail is a good reminder of a key truth about the Katrina disaster: It was mostly the result of government failure.
The flooding that devastated New Orleans was caused not by Mother Nature but by defective infrastructure -- infrastructure built and operated by the federal government, such as the now-infamous 17th Street Canal levee. When the Army Corps of Engineers designed that levee, it made critical mistakes. It badly underestimated soil strength, for example, which led to the use of sheet pilings that were too flimsy, resulting in floodwalls unable to withstand the water Katrina hurled toward the city.
Worse, the "obviously faulty designs," as the New Orleans Times-Picayune termed them on Dec. 30, were flagged during a design review by the Corps of Engineers' regional office, which ordered the engineers in New Orleans to correct their plans. But they didn't. When the chief engineer in New Orleans balked, the Times-Picayune found, "his superiors dropped the issue."
Compounding that structural weakness was the dreadfully misguided Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a 76-mile long manmade river created by the federal government 40 years ago to speed navigation. For decades, critics warned that the canal was a flood disaster waiting to happen -- a giant "funnel" that would accelerate and intensify any storm surge headed toward the New Orleans levees. Sure enough, when Katrina hit, the canal greatly magnified the height and speed of the wall of water that slammed into the levees. Entire sections of the wall gave way, leading to the destruction of a major American city. And all of it made possible by your tax dollars at work.
Could such appalling errors ever occur in the private sector? Of course they could, and had the New Orleans levee system been in private hands, there is no guarantee that Katrina wouldn't have proved just as catastrophic. But failure would have had consequences -- financial reverses, firings, loss of market share, costly lawsuits. A private corporation whose incompetence leads to dire results can expect to pay a price for its bungling, but there is no market discipline in the public sector, where dissatisfied "customers" -- better known as taxpayers -- generally cannot take their business elsewhere or refuse to keep paying.
If levees are to be built, says Walter Block, an economist at Loyola University of New Orleans, the job should be carried out "by an economic entity that can lose funding, and thus put its very existence at risk if it errs. This can only apply to the market -- never the state." But of course neither the Corps of Engineers nor any other government agency is going to lose its funding, or face any penalty. On the contrary, they will be rewarded with more money and authority -- the government's usual response to its own failures.
Indeed, in the aftermath of Katrina plenty of voices clamor for more government and more central planning -- from Ted Kennedy's call for a new, Cabinet-level Gulf Coast Redevelopment Authority to the USA Today editorial wishing New Orleans had "a singular vision of how to rebuild and a take-charge leader." An AP headline summed up the prevailing attitude: "Katrina Ushers in Return of Big Government."
And how is big government handling things, post-Katrina? Well, the New York Times reports that in Louisiana communities that hired private contractors to clear away the debris left by the storm, 70 percent of the cleanup is complete. In those that are relying on the Army Corps of Engineers, the job is only 45 percent done. Biloxi, Miss., which turned to private operators, now has "whole neighborhoods . . . primed for new development. But in Pascagoula, 25 miles east, only about 25 residential lots have been cleared."
Pascagoula's cleanup, needless to say, is being handled by the feds.