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Katrina and the Politics of Preemption By: Lowell Ponte
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, September 12, 2005

While Louisiana’s Democratic politicians point fingers at others to evade their own irresponsibility, and while the partisan left lies to exploit a natural disaster for political and ideological gain, more important unasked questions have lessons to teach us. 

Could Hurricane Katrina itself have been diverted away from New Orleans, weakened or even prevented?  If science has the weapons to disarm hurricanes such as Katrina, why was no such effort made to save the Crescent City in the path of this monstrous killer storm?

American scientists have studied ways to modify hurricanes. In 1962 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began Project Stormfury, which for more than a decade not only analyzed but also on at least three occasions cloud-seeded these atmospheric whirlpools of destruction.  Stormfury also investigated other exotic techniques for altering hurricanes, such as coating ocean paths ahead of a storm to reduce its pickup of the sea surface heat that fuels the immense energy engine of hurricanes.


But despite early reports of success in modifying hurricanes, Project Stormfury lost political support. Cuba’s Marxist dictator Fidel Castro accused the U.S. of redirecting hurricanes against his Soviet colony in the Caribbean. The Pentagon Papers had revealed military experiments with cloud-seeding intended to cause flooding and to wash away dikes in North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, North Vietnam suffered more typhoons – Pacific hurricanes – in one season than had hit it in 1,100 years, raising questions about U.S. Department of Defense participation in Project Stormfury. And the Central American nation Honduras blamed the U.S. for its drought, the result of too few hurricanes bringing their usual rainfall.


In 1983 Project Stormfury was officially terminated.


Despite loony left efforts to blame President George W. Bush for Hurricane Katrina – the purported fruit of global warming caused by the President’s refusal to support the Kyoto Protocol – most Americans see Katrina as a natural disaster, what insurance policies traditionally proclaim an “Act of God.”


For thousands of years we have seen the weather as largely beyond human control, involving forces magnitudes larger than we possess.  Measured in kinetic energy Hurricane Katrina, which briefly became a Category Five storm with wind speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, gave off more destructive energy than all humankind’s nuclear weapons combined.


But even hurricanes are no longer beyond human power. Through Project Stormfury and other research we have begun learning how to dissipate such storms in their infancy, to snuff them out in their mid-Atlantic cradle before they grow into giant storms. We certainly have found clues about how to weaken or steer hurricanes. Why have we stepped back from using this knowledge to protect cities such as New Orleans from these deadly monsters of the atmosphere?


The answer is that people, with sad resignation, will accept tragedy from an Act of God. They will not, however, stoically accept a disaster caused by the hand of man.


If a hurricane is cloud-seeded, whatever it does thereafter will, rightly or wrongly, be blamed on those who seeded it. Had a cloud-seeded Hurricane Katrina swerved from New Orleans and instead hit Houston (where local Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has complained about the lack of African-American names for hurricanes), potentially millions of lawsuits would be launched against the cloud-seeders. Even if a cloud-seeded hurricane dissipated without killing or flooding anyone, lawsuits would come from those claiming that the rainfall they needed from the storm had been stolen. (When Israel did cloud seeding decades ago, surrounding Arab nations accused it of stealing their rainfall.)


From the outset of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, critics were eager to damn President Bush whatever he did. He was criticized for not rushing to New Orleans to embrace victims of the disaster. Had he done so, he would have been accused in the left media of “exploiting the victims” for a “photo op” and of “diverting needed police officers” (as inevitably happens whenever any President visits a place) from the crisis.


But President Bush and future presidents may face a more difficult decision: whether to attempt to use cloud seeding and other techniques to preempt or deflect hurricanes that threaten major cities where thousands could die.


In June 2002 President Bush in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point announced a new doctrine in the war against terrorism: Preemptive action.


“If we wait for threats to fully materialize,” said President Bush, “we will have waited too long.” In an age where a single Islamic suicide bomber armed with a megaweapon can theoretically kill millions crowded together in a large city, we cannot wait to react to such attacks.


We must prevent such mega-terrorism by preemptively striking first, warned President Bush.


Israel did this in 1981 by preempting the Osirak nuclear reactor being built by the French on the outskirts of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad. Had Israel not acted decisively, we would have faced a nuclear-armed Iraq in Kuwait and thereafter, a megalomaniacal regime potentially willing to provide nukes to Islamist terrorists. Had Israel not done this, 9-11 might have turned all of Manhattan into a radioactive pit of hell beneath a mushroom cloud.


The problem with preempting terrorists, as with preempting hurricanes, is that critics after the fact will claim that no threat existed, that risks were exaggerated, and that the preemption caused more problems than it prevented. The more successful the preemption, the more it will either go unnoticed or get criticized. Few will applaud that the U.S. has suffered no successful terrorist attack since 9-11, or that future hurricanes simply won’t cause the destruction of past ones.


The traditional political past is merely defensive: build thicker castle walls, taller levees and dikes, stronger fences. Israel’s strategy includes a high-security fence to hold terrorists at bay. Many argue that such fences should be put around the United States to filter out would-be terrorists, but few politicians want to be the little Dutch boy who uses his finger to stop the leak in our border dike that looks to many like a potential inundation of undocumented immigrants.


The problem, as President Bush rightly noted, is that our world is no longer “natural” in the old sense. We have created cities that, for terrorists or hurricanes, are centralized, highly vulnerable, and filled with large numbers of people addicted to and dependent upon government services. The cities themselves have become time bombs that can be detonated merely by disruption, natural or manmade. We must act preemptively to prevent such disruptions or risk the horrors seen in recent days in New Orleans.


New Orleans itself is an artificial city whose average elevation is 6-10 feet below sea level. This is nothing new. Its founders built the original French Quarter on one of the few spots above sea level. Later generations built levees so they could expand the city into what had been malarial swamps, i.e. “natural wetlands.”


It seems surprising that left environmental extremists have not rushed to celebrate the Mississippi River reclaiming its onetime territory, much as they cheered “let it burn” when President Bill Clinton let forest fires ravage Yellowstone National Park. If New Orleans were 100 percent Caucasian instead of 70 percent African-American, the enviro-kooks probably would be demanding that it be left in its flooded natural state.


These are the selfsame leftists who declare that the war in Iraq is being fought “over oil,” which the United States could get instead from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), untapped until now because of environmentalist objections.


So how “natural” does the left want our future to be?


In its natural state almost all of New Orleans was and would be under water. In America’s natural state, we have the most violent weather of any major nation on earth, owing to where we sit between the Equator and North Pole and how seasonal weather changes rake over us. If the environmentalist doomsayers are right, global warming is already starting to bring bigger, more violent hurricanes and rising sea levels. If science gives us the means to modify the weather, should we curb this meteorological peril to humankind?


Do we have the moral right, like the beaver, to build dams and levees to reshape our environment into more human-friendly forms? President Clinton had begun tearing down “clean” hydropower dams in the Pacific Northwest. San Francisco environmentalists a few years ago applauded a Republican Secretary of Interior’s plan to undam the Hetch-Hetchy reservoir and restore a Yosemite valley to its natural spendor – until they learned that this man-made reservoir supplied most the drinking water used by San Francisco.


Do we have the right, in self-defense, to preemptively modify hurricanes that threaten our lives, or to preemptively attack terrorists who threaten to enslave and destroy us and who attempt to obtain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to achieve this?  


Instead of today’s partisan blame game, these are the debates we ought to be having.

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Mr. Ponte co-hosts a national radio talk show Monday through Friday 6-8 PM Eastern Time (3-5 PM Pacific Time) on the Genesis Communications Network. Internet Audio worldwide is at GCNlive .com. The show's live call-in number is 1-800-259-9231. A professional speaker, he is a former Roving Editor for Reader's Digest.

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