This has been the summer from hell, the summer of a year filled with tragedy and of lessons learned by all of us.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast offers us the first object lesson. New Orleans’ flood-control measures failed their test. There was plenty of warning that this was bound to happen if no corrective measures were taken. No one took it seriously, and now look at the ensuing human misery.

This newspaper reported not long ago on the conditions of dams, dikes and drainage channels across our region. Some of them are old, in dire condition and in need of urgent repair. We know from past experience that at least once every two generations our region faces weather events capable of overwhelming our flood-control measures. Are we ready to withstand the next flood? Have those responsible done anything to address the condition of our flood-control measures?

We still don’t know.

The aftermath of Katrina also has shown the delicate situation of our fuel production and distribution systems. The spikes in gasoline prices that we have seen in the past few weeks have been in the works for years. The price hikes are the product of opposing priorities.

On one hand, we need more refining capacity in our country. Oil doesn’t turn itself into gasoline; refineries do this.

On the other hand, we have the imperative of keeping a clean environment. A refinery is not the most environmentally friendly enterprise known to man. I enjoy the pleasures of clean water and clean air and I appreciate the “not in my backyard” attitude that most Americans have when it comes to building these sprawling complexes.

But we have reached an impasse; our undisciplined oil consumption is unsustainable.

Our competing priorities have reached a breaking point. Either we build more refineries to satisfy our national thirst for fuel while increasing our domestic oil production, or we come up with alternative solutions that may be disruptive in the near term but in the long run will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and, ultimately, on oil itself.

I favor a “Manhattan Plan” approach to energy development and conservation, a focused effort by government at all levels and the private sector with the aim of achieving complete energy independence for the United States in 10 years. In the short term, this will lead us to increased domestic exploitation of nonrenewable sources of energy such as oil, coal and natural gas, while renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and, ultimately, nuclear fusion technologies come on line, becoming cheaper and more efficient.

The internal combustion engine should become a thing of the past. Instead, we should invest more on hybrid and hydrogen-burning engines to power our cars and turn once again to conventional nuclear power, as long as we agree as a nation beforehand in whose back yard we are going to bury its byproducts.

Weaning the nation away from foreign oil, and eventually from all oil, will enhance national security. The U.S. national interest will shift away from the oil-producing regions, with a corresponding decrease of our military presence there and of the chance of further foreign intervention to guarantee the free flow of oil.

Nations that continue to depend on oil will be left alone to carry the burden of keeping their markets open and supplied with oil. If they end up appeasing the energy barons, that would become a problem for them and their militaries.

The United States should recapture the promise made by its Founders and reiterated by Abraham Lincoln: That the government set up in this land would be of the people, by the people, for the people.

Let us all do our duty to make this happen not only in the distressed communities along the Gulf Coast, but across the entire country.

Pedro O. Vega lives and works in Johnstown. He has an Internet blog on local issues, the Conemaugh Valley Times, at

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