Watching television coverage of the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina put a desperate face on the folksy phrase “Come hell or high water.” In Gulfport, Biloxi, and other towns along the Mississippi and Alabama coast, a 30-foot storm surge flattened almost everything in sight. Residents described the tangled mass of trees, cars, boats, splintered homes, and other debris pushed miles inland by the water as a “moving floor.” And in New Orleans, the lack of food, water, power, and sanitation, and the breakdown of civil behavior at the Superdome and the Convention Center can only be described as hellish.
There's little to add to what's been written in recent weeks about why this tragedy occurred and how it can be prevented in the future. But I think it brings home the value of some aspects of our business that we either take for granted or we wish would go away.
For starters, we've been reminded of what codes are for. Not the abstraction they sometimes seem to be, codes grow out of precisely the kinds of scenes we witnessed in the live coverage of the New Orleans flooding. Viewing aerial footage of New Orleans in the days after the levees broke and seeing the hundreds of stranded residents climbing out of second story windows into rescue boats, it was difficult not to think about egress window codes. Then, while watching rescue crews breaking through attic roofs with axes to look for residents trapped under the roofs of homes that were nearly completely submerged, I couldn't help thinking that if New Orleans were to be rebuilt, an attic hatch, folding stair, and roof window might become mandatory for any home built below sea level.
We've also been reminded of what zoning is for. About the time Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, builders and remodelers in the Washington, D.C.–area were engaged in a battle with local building departments over zoning height limits for new homes and additions. There was a lot of talk about property rights, overregulation, and government meddling with business development.
Zoning regulations limiting the height of private homes and those limiting construction in, say, a floodplain are quite different in many ways. But at their core is a principle that says an individual is accountable to the larger community for his or her actions. Property ownership alone does not guarantee complete freedom of action with regard to that property. As we saw in New Orleans, and as we have seen numerous times before after hurricanes along the Eastern seaboard, or floods along the Mississippi, or wildfires and mud slides in California, the decisions of individuals affect the larger society.
This is a particularly difficult lesson for Americans, whose history is filled with the rugged individualism of early settlers, explorers, statesmen, and industrialists. This country is founded on the rights of individuals, and the most important guarantees of the Constitution are guarantees of personal freedom. But as resources become scarce and open spaces become densely populated, we all become more dependent on one another. As we discovered in the Gulf Coast disaster, we are social beings who don't do well in isolation. When the phones go down, and the newspapers stop being printed, and the roads and bridges that connect us are all washed out, we learn that, as individuals, we don't stand much chance of surviving.
Finally, Katrina taught us what government is for. Unfortunately, we learned it through an immense failure of government at every level — local, state, and federal. Watching the devastation and suffering in New Orleans and the states of Mississippi and Alabama these past few weeks reminds me not only of how fragile are the constructs of mere humans, be they buildings or laws, but how much we rely on collective action.
As of this writing, New Orleans is still weeks away from being pumped dry. Botched as the response was, and plagued with problems as the rebuilding is likely to be, only government is capable of providing citizens of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with a second chance. Let's hope they get it.