Lessons from Katrina

Have we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina?

Consider this, from an article by Laurie Becklund in the California Monthly, a UC Berkeley alumni magazine, in the December 2005 issue.

Two thirds of California’s fresh water, and most of Southen California’s drinking supply, flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a network of sixty islands and peninsulas six times larger than New Orleans that is protected by 1,100 miles of fragile levees, originally built with shovels in the nineteenth century, and not significantly improved since then.

UC Berkeley professor of geo engineering Ray Seed says that instead of raising money to fix the problem, politicians have periodically funded studies, despite reports of $100 million in damage caused by levee failures in June 2004 after routine maintenance budgets were slashed.

A major quake in the Bay Area could cause salt water to pour into the delta, effectively destroying the fresh water supply for Southern California, other than emergency supplies from the Colorado River. Not even good levee maintenance would prevent this; an emergency trench through the center of California is Seed’s most likely solution.

In terms of the national budget, Seed hopes that the debate over Katrina will create a swing back to funding civil engineers. Or as he ironically puts it, “Mechanical engineers get paid to make weapons; civil engineers get paid to make targets.”