Center for Progressive Reform

Disasters and Public Policy

Unnatural Disasters, Years in the Making

Some disasters are natural, and some are man-made.  Hurricane Katrina was a violent hurricane, but it is remembered principally for the shocking failure of the government's response to the devastating effects of the storm. The BP Oil Spill and the Massey Coal Mine Disaster are entirely "unnatural," in the sense that nature played no part in creating the deadly disasters; it was merely a backdrop.  What claimed lives -- 29 in the Massey mine in West Virginia and 11 in the Gulf of Mexico -- and what created an ecological nightmare in the case of BP, was the policy decisionmaking and the failed enforcement of regulations.  Company officials made choices that put profit ahead of safety, policymakers made decisions that created the context for that recklessness, and regulators missed chances to enforce safety requirements. Human decisions, all.

BP Oil Spill / The Massey Mine Disaster

CPR's Member Scholars are exploring the various issues related to two 2010 disasters -- the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico (11 lives and untold ecological harm) and the Massey Coal Mine Disaster in West Virginia (29 lives).  The Member Scholars have published several reports on the subject, and created an interactive map documenting of the BP Oil Spill. Regulatory Blowout: How Regulatory Failures Made the BP Disaster Possible, and How the System Can Be Fixed to Avoid a Recurrence (1 meg download), CPR White Paper 1007, describes multiple regulatory failures. The BP Catastrophe: When Hobbled Law and Hollow Regulation Leave Americans Unprotected (CPR White Paper 1101) elaborates on the regulatory failures and describes the unreasonable constraints placed on the victims and survivors of the BP disaster in their effort to recover damages from the mega-corporations behind the disaster. CPR also created an Interactive Map of the BP Oil Spill, offering a bird's-eye view. Read about CPR Member Scholars' work on the 2010 BP Oil Spill, including reports on the regulatory lessons of the disaster and op-eds in the LA Times, Baltimore Sun and Houston Chronicle.

In addition, CPRBlog has carried a number of entries related to both the BP and Massey mine disasters. Read posts about CPRBlog posts on the BP Spill, and CPRBlog entries on the Massey Mine Disaster.


Among the more significant pre-storm failures that contributed to the scope of the damage: inadequate levees and botched supervision of levee construction by the Army Corps of Engineers; wetlands policies and under-funding of restoration efforts, leading to a lack of natural barriers and absorption of floodwaters; failed toxic waste cleanup efforts that allowed toxics to ooze into floodwaters; the de-emphasizing and under-funding of the federal government’s emergency response capacity by the Bush Administration; and more. These and other bad policy choices are laid bare in CPR’s groundbreaking examination of the disaster’s antecedents, Unnatural Disaster: The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, published in September 2005.

In the days immediately following the disaster, in an effort to defend or at least distract attention from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s manifest failure, some conservative critics charged that a late 1970s lawsuit brought by New Orleans commercial and environmental organizations had “caused” the disaster, by scuttling an Army Corps of Engineers levee plan. CPR Member Scholars quickly issued a report documenting otherwise, Broken Levees: Why They Failed. The Corps had failed to file an even remotely adequate environmental impact statement, as the law requires, and the judge in the case ordered the Corps to conduct such analysis before proceeding with construction. The Corps subsequently opted for a different design for reasons unrelated to the litigation.

Learn more about CPR’s work in the aftermath of Katrina:



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