September 1, 2005


Drowning New Orleans: A major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands. Human activities along the Mississippi River have dramatically increased the risk, and now only massive reengineering of southeastern Louisiana can save the city (Mark Fischetti, Scientific American)

Humankind can't stop the delta's subsidence, and it can't knock down the levees to allow natural river flooding and meandering, because the region is developed. The only realistic solutions, most scientists and engineers agree, are to rebuild the vast marshes so they can absorb high waters and reconnect the barrier islands to cut down surges and protect the renewed marshes from the sea.

Since the late 1980s Louisiana's senators have made various pleas to Congress to fund massive remedial work. But they were not backed by a unified voice. L.S.U. had its surge models, and the Corps had others. Despite agreement on general solutions, competition abounded as to whose specific projects would be most effective. The Corps sometimes painted academics' cries about disaster as veiled pitches for research money. Academia occasionally retorted that the Corps's solution to everything was to bulldoze more dirt and pour more concrete, without scientific rationale. Meanwhile oystermen and shrimpers complained that the proposals from both the scientists and the engineers would ruin their fishing grounds.

Len Bahr, head of the governor's Coastal Activities Office in Baton Rouge, tried to bring everyone together. Passionate about southern Louisiana, Bahr has survived three governors, each with different sympathies. "This is the realm in which science has to operate," Bahr says. "There are five federal agencies and six state agencies with jurisdiction over what happens in the wetlands." Throughout the 1990s, Bahr says with frustration, "we only received $40 million a year" from Congress, a drop compared with the bucket of need. Even with the small projects made possible by these dollars, Louisiana scientists predicted that by 2050 coastal Louisiana would lose another 1,000 square miles of marsh and swamp, an area the size of Rhode Island.

Then Hurricane Georges arrived in September 1998. Its fiercely circulating winds built a wall of water 17 feet high topped with driven waves, which threatened to surge into Lake Pontchartrain and wash into New Orleans. This was the very beast that L.S.U.'s early models had warned about, and it was headed right for the city. Luckily, just before Georges made landfall, it slowed and turned a scant two degrees to the east. The surge collapsed under suddenly chaotic winds.

The scientists, engineers and politicians who had been squabbling realized how close the entire delta had come to disaster, and Bahr says that it scared them into reaching a consensus. Late in 1998 the governor's office, the state's Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service and all 20 of the state's coastal parishes published Coast 2050--a blueprint for restoring coastal Louisiana.

No group is bound by the plan, however, and if all the projects were pursued, the price tag would be $14 billion. "So," I ask in the ninth-floor conference room adjacent to the governor's office in Baton Rouge, "give me the short list" of Coast 2050 projects that would make the most difference. Before me are Joe Suhayda, director of L.S.U.'s Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute, who has modeled numerous storm tracks and knows the key scientists, Corps engineers, and city emergency planners; Vibhas Aravamuthan, who programs L.S.U.'s computer models; Len Bahr; and Bahr's second-in-command, Paul Kemp. All were involved in designing Coast 2050.

First and foremost, they decide, build a river diversion at several critical spots along the Mississippi, to restore disappearing marshland. At each location the Corps would cut a channel through the river levee on its south side and build control gates that would allow freshwater and suspended sediment to wash down through select marshes toward the gulf. The water could disrupt oyster beds, but if the sites were carefully selected, deals could be made with landowners.

Every 24 minutes Louisiana loses one acre of land.

The second step: rebuild the southern barrier islands using more than 500 million cubic yards of sand from nearby Ship Shoal. Next, the Corps would cut a channel in the narrow neck of the river delta at about halfway down. Ships could enter the river there, shortening their trip to interior ports and saving them money. The Corps could then stop dredging the southern end of the river. The mouth would fill with sediment and begin overflowing to the west, sending sand and silt back into those longshore currents that could sustain the barrier islands.

The channel plan might be integrated into a larger state proposal to build an entire new Millennium Port. It would provide deeper draft for modern container ships than the Port of New Orleans and its main channel, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO, pronounced Mr. Go), which the Corps dredged in the early 1960s. The outlet has eroded terribly--from 500 feet across, originally, to 2,000 feet in places--and let in a relentless stream of saltwater that has killed much of the marsh that once protected eastern New Orleans against gulf storms. If the channel or the Millennium Port were built, the Corps could close MrGo.

A remaining chink in the delta's armor is the pair of narrow straits on Lake Pontchartrain's eastern edge where it connects to the gulf. The obvious solution would be to gate them, just as the Netherlands does to regulate the North Sea's flow inland. But it would be a tough sell. "We've proposed that in the past, and it's been shot down," Bahr says. The project's costs would be extremely high.

This list of the most promising Coast 2050 projects is only one small group's vision, of course, yet other established experts concur with its fundamentals. Ivor van Heerden, a geologist who is deputy director of L.S.U.'s Hurricane Center, concurs that "if we're going to succeed, we've got to mimic nature. Building diversions and reestablishing barrier-island sediment flows are the closest we can come." Shea Penland pretty much agrees, although he warns that the Mississippi River may not carry enough sediment to feed multiple diversions. U.S. Geological Survey studies by Robert Meade show that the supply of suspended sediment is less than half of what it was prior to 1953, diverted mostly by dams along the river's course through middle America.

As far as the Corps is concerned, all of the Coast 2050 projects should be implemented. The first to become a reality is the Davis Pond diversion, due to begin operating by the end of this year. Project manager Al Naomi, a 30-year Corps civil engineer, and Bruce Baird, a biological oceanographer, brought me to the construction site on the Mississippi's southern levee, 20 miles west of New Orleans. The structure looks like a modest dam, in line with the levee. Steel gates in its midsection, each large enough to drive a bus through, will open and close to control water flowing through it. The water will exit into a wide swath of cleared swamp that extends south for a mile, forming a shallow riverbed that will gradually disperse into boundary-less marsh. The structure will divert up to 10,650 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from the Mississippi, whose total flow past New Orleans ranges from less than 200,000 cfs during droughts to more than one million cfs during floods. The outflow should help preserve 33,000 acres of wetlands, oysterbeds and fishing grounds.

The Corps is bullish on Davis Pond because of its success at Caernarvon, a smaller, experimental diversion it opened in 1991 near MrGo. By 1995 Caernarvon had restored 406 acres by increasing the marsh's sediment and reducing its salinity with freshwater.

The corps of engineers is hiring more scientists for projects such as Davis Pond, a signal that the fragmented parties are beginning to work better together. Bahr would like to integrate science and engineering further by requiring independent scientific review of proposed Corps projects before the state signed on--which Louisiana would need to do because Congress would require the state to share the cost of such work.

If Congress and President George W. Bush hear a unified call for action, authorizing it would seem prudent.

If only New Orleans had its own Big Dig everything would be dry....

Will New Orleans Recover?: Weak and struggling before Katrina, the good-time city now teeters on the brink. (Nicole Gelinas, 31 August 2005, City Journal)

New Orleans has no real competent government or civil infrastructure—and no aggressive media or organized citizens’ groups to prod public officials in the right direction during what will be, in the best-case scenario, a painstaking path to normalcy.

The truth is that even on a normal day, New Orleans is a sad city. Sure, tourists think New Orleans is fun: you can drink and hop from strip club to strip club all night on Bourbon Street, and gamble all your money away at Harrah’s. But the city’s decline over the past three decades has left it impoverished and lacking the resources to build its economy from within. New Orleans can’t take care of itself even when it is not 80 percent underwater; what is it going to do now, as waters continue to cripple it, and thousands of looters systematically destroy what Katrina left unscathed?

A city blessed with robust, professional police and fire forces, with capable government leaders, an informed citizenry, and a relatively resilient economy can overcome catastrophe, but it doesn’t emerge stronger: look at New York after 9/11. The richest big city in the country in more ways than one mustered every ounce of energy to clean up after 9/11 and to rebuild its economy and its downtown—but even so, competing special interests overcame citizens’ and officials’ best intentions. Ground Zero remains a hole, and New York, for all its resources, finds itself diminished, physically and economically, four years on.

In New Orleans, the recovery will be much, much harder.

-Hastert Questions Rebuilding New Orleans (The Associated Press, September 1, 2005)
It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's seven feet under sea level, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of federal assistance for hurricane-devastated New Orleans.

"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," the Illinois Republican said in an interview Wednesday with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill.

Hastert, in a transcript supplied by the newspaper, said there was no question that the people of New Orleans would rebuild their city, but noted that federal insurance and other federal aid was involved. "We ought to take a second look at it. But you know we build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures and they rebuild too. Stubbornness."

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 1, 2005 5:50 PM

There's gotta be a pillar of salt somewhere on higher ground.

Posted by: ghostcat at September 1, 2005 6:12 PM

From (Please don't visit, their bandwidth is very stressed.)

New Orleans Police Department Status: The situation for the NOPD is critical. This is firsthand information I have from an NOPD officer we're giving shelter to. Their command and control infrastructure is shot. They have limited to no communication whatsoever. He didn't even know the city was under martial law until we told him! His precinct (5th Precinct) is under water! UNDER WATER -- every vehicle under water. They had to commander moving trucks like Ryder and UHaul to get around. The coroner's office is shut down so bodies are being covered in leaves at best or left where they lie at worst.

They don't even know their own rules of engagement. He says the force is impotent right now. They have no idea what's going on, no coordination...


More from the Police Officer. I'm typing as fast as i can while he talks to us:
He's only hearing bits and pieces. The people in the city are shooting at the police. They're upset that they're not getting help quickly enough. The fireman keep calling because they're under fire. He doesn't understand why the people are shooting at the rescuers. Here it is 5 days ago the Mayor said get out of town and nobody went and now they're pissed.

The National Guard was at the Hilton, but now the Hilton is evacuated. When they said the CBD was gonna get 6 feet of water, it seems like everyone evacuated.

He turned the corner onto Canal Street and it looked like a flea market. People breaking into every store, going to the neutral gound (median) and trading and selling everything.

They broke into Winn Dixie Monday Night. Do they steal food? No. Cigarettes and liquor. Store was a mess. All the meats were going to waste so the districts went over there to salvage food for officers. Many cops have been eating MREs.

The Iberville Housing Projects got pissed off because the police started to "shop" after they kicked out looters. Then they started shooting at cops. When the cops left, the looters looted everything. There's probably not a grocery left in this city.

Over 30 officers have quit over the last 3 days. Out of 160 officers in his district maybe 55 or 60 are working. He hasn't seen several since Sunday. HQ is closed, evacuated. No phones to contact them.

"HQ, be advised, we're going 10 7." [going off duty]

"Ok, y'all coming back on???"

"We don't know."

Posted by: Gideon at September 1, 2005 8:28 PM

"Will New Orleans recover?"
Galveston didn't recover to its former position after 1900 and it was in a lot better shape the New Orleans is before the storm. Of course, 1900 is different from 2005 so who knows?

"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed,"

Smooth, Denny, real f'ing smooth. Yes, Orrin, I know he's probably right, but now is not the time. There's such a thing as tact and compassion and talking about bulldozing the town when people are still trying to bury (or even find) their dead is remarkably tone-deaf.

Posted by: at September 1, 2005 8:50 PM

The real question is: should we recover it?

Posted by: oj at September 1, 2005 8:56 PM

Who is "we"? New Orleans is probably gone. A rebuilt antique historical building isn't the same antique historical building----it's merely a replica.
Not to mention the awkward fact that it seems the residents of NO are determined to drive away people who are trying to help.

Posted by: ray at September 1, 2005 9:11 PM


we the United States.

Posted by: oj at September 1, 2005 10:37 PM

Like I said before. Sell the tourist stuff to somebody who wants to run an amusmement park. Move the Mississippi and rebuild the industry there.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 2:34 AM

The question fron the other angle is if you just went through this hell, would you want to be put back into a brand-new home that was still eight feet below sea level and prone to the same type of distruction when the next hurricane comes along?

Posted by: John at September 2, 2005 9:23 AM

A brand new house built at taxpayer expense.

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2005 10:08 AM

"Drowning New Orleans"
I'd like to know when this article was actually written.

Posted by: Genecis at September 2, 2005 11:42 AM

The murder rate in NO in 2002 (last I could find in Google quickly) was the highest in the US. However, the rate for other crimes was very reasonable, much lower than many other cities. It seems to me that this means either: 1. NO citizens report less crime or 2. NO police report bogus stats to the FBI. I think #2 much more likely. Murders can't be hidden, too easy to check. So, this is further evidence of the corruption of the NO police department.

Any police officer who quits in NO right now should not only be fired but prosecuted.

Posted by: Bob at September 2, 2005 1:20 PM

Disturbing thoughts. I hope I'm wrong. Better yet, I hope to be proved wrong. And ignorant.

On the Levees of New Orleans

Posted by: Solomon2 at September 2, 2005 1:49 PM