September 1, 2005
DEMOCRACIES DON'T PLAN AHEAD, THEY REACT:
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