by Stan Kahn

Part of me actually looks forward to natural disasters. Much as I'm touched by the hardship and loss of life that often ensues there's something reassuring about the knowledge that the world is full of forces that are beyond our control.

Even when part of the damage that results can be attributed to human deficiency, ineptitude or malfeasance it still manifests a kind of inevitability and power that evokes awe. Katrina and last December's tsunami were both events of great magnitude that would have caused extensive damage under the best conditions. However in both cases the destruction was intensified by human manipulation of the natural landscape.

In the case of the tsunami the widespread destruction of coastal mangrove forests greatly exacerbated the damage. Had they been intact, they would have substantially slowed the waves and reduced their impact.

Part of the problem is the mere presence of people in vulnerable places. We like to be near the water but we simultaneously don't want to pay for the type of construction – brick for instance – that can withstand hurricane forces. In the case of the third worlders who were hit by the tsunami, they don't have the choice of living in solid buildings, they can barely manage a roof over their heads. And, of course, the presence of growing numbers of people in the world will stretch every resource, including finding places for people to live.

As for New Orleans, it makes no sense whatever to build a city that's four meters under sea level and then fill in large areas of coastal wetlands capable of softening a hurricane's blow and then build ship canals that act as perfect conduits for storm surges... if you aren't also willing to devote huge resources to protecting the city.

I guess if you're having trouble financing a war of choice costing $6 billion per month then you can't afford to spend $60 million – 100 times less – to strengthen levees that you know are only good for a category 2 or 3 storm when category 4 or 5's are coming hard and heavy. And if you don't think it's important to protect the city then why bother spending $6 million on a disaster preparedness plan.

One of the greatest things about the whole sequence of events is the stupefying ineptitude that has characterized the relief effort. On top of that add the willful lack of preparedness and what you have is an avalanche of bad press for monkey boy. The absence of thousands of national guardsmen, now on duty in Iraq, also hasn't done much for helping the assistance effort, though the whole fiasco has been so poorly handled it probably wouldn't have made much difference if they had been available.

And let's not forget to attribute the wonders of the free market to the gas price gouging that's become rampant in many places. The oil companies didn't create the shortages – or so the theory goes – so there's no reason to ask them or expect them to sell their products for less than they're worth, that is, the market will bear. The fact that they're getting huge subsidies from the US government – certainly one of the most moronic things I've ever heard of – shouldn't infer that they might think they ought to forgo their ability to wring every ill-gotten penny out of the market.

Now, my fellow fogeys out there will remember the oil supply problems of the '70's and that Nixon – no flaming radical, he – set price controls on gas to prevent gouging. (That was the only time I've ever seen gas priced in something other than 9/10ths of a cent. Even when gas goes to $20/gallon they'll still ask for $20.00 9/10ths.) Those of you who imagine you can find a way to deal with higher prices should know the biggest pr oblem then was shortages. I once totally lucked out in a quest for fuel. After waiting in a very long line I filled up with the last gas the station had on hand; the long line of people behind me had to start their fuel search again.

As for the Big Easy, I'd say just let the low-lying areas return to swamp and rebuild the bulk of the city on nearby higher ground. They say it'll take 2 months to fix the levees and pump out the flood water; by then I expect those houses that will have been sitting in water all that time will be worthless. The billions of dollars necessary to rebuild the city's infrastructure, including the mountains of money needed to construct a secure levee system would be better spent in a more logical, sensible location.

Global warming is going to produce many seasons of extreme weather with individual storms getting more devastating, why take a chance that a superstorm will knock out even a greatly bols tered protection system. Moreover part of any protection regime should include returning the area between New Orleans and the gulf to a more natural state, the only way to mitigate the impact of big storms. Do I expect that to be the outcome of this unprecedented catastrophe? Do elephants fly?