September 2, 2005


New Orleans Levees Not Built for Worst Case Events (Brian Handwerk, September 2, 2005, National Geographic News)

New Orleans is surrounded by water—Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, and the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Resting an average of six feet (two meters) below sea level, the city's safety has long depended on one of the world's most extensive levee systems.

On Thursday afternoon, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials briefed reporters on the status of that levee system, even as much of the city remained flooded and crews worked to repair breeches along city canals.

The bowl-like shape of New Orleans prevents water from draining away, as broken levees continue to allow water to flow into city streets. No one is sure how long it will take to pump out floodwaters once the levees are repaired.

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the Corps, dismissed suggestions that recent federal funding decreases or delayed contracts had any impact on levee performance in the face of Katrina's overwhelming force.

Instead he pointed to a danger that many public officials had warned about for years: The system was never designed to withstand a storm of Katrina's strength.

"It was fully recognized by officials that we had Category Three [hurricane] level of protection," Strock said. "As projections of Category Four and Five were made, [officials] began plans to evacuate the city.

"We were just caught by a storm whose intensity exceeded the protection that we had in place."

But, just think, we could have had a brand new multi-billion dollar project fail instead of an old one....

Gone With The Water: The Louisiana bayou, hardest working marsh in America, is in big trouble—with dire consequences for residents, the nearby city of New Orleans, and seafood lovers everywhere. ( Joel K. Bourne, Jr., 10/04, National Geographic)

It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.

"The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24 hours—coming from the worst direction," says Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State University who has spent 30 years studying the coast. Suhayda is sitting in a lakefront restaurant on an actual August afternoon sipping lemonade and talking about the chinks in the city's hurricane armor. "I don't think people realize how precarious we are,"
Suhayda says, watching sailboats glide by. "Our technology is great when it works. But when it fails, it's going to make things much worse."

The chances of such a storm hitting New Orleans in any given year are slight, but the danger is growing. Climatologists predict that powerful storms may occur more frequently this century, while rising sea level from global warming is putting low-lying coasts at greater risk. "It's not if it will happen," says University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland. "It's when."

Yet just as the risks of a killer storm are rising, the city's natural defenses are quietly melting away. From the Mississippi border to the Texas state line, Louisiana is losing its protective fringe of marshes and barrier islands faster than any place in the U.S. Since the 1930s some 1,900 square miles (4,900 square kilometers) of coastal wetlands—a swath nearly the size of Delaware or almost twice that of Luxembourg—have vanished beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Despite nearly half a billion dollars spent over the past decade to stem the tide, the state continues to lose about 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) of land each year, roughly one acre every 33 minutes.

A cocktail of natural and human factors is putting the coast under. Delta soils naturally compact and sink over time, eventually giving way to open water unless fresh layers of sediment offset the subsidence. The Mississippi's spring floods once maintained that balance, but the annual deluges were often disastrous. After a devastating flood in 1927, levees were raised along the river and lined with concrete, effectively funneling the marsh-building sediments to the deep waters of the Gulf. Since the 1950s engineers have also cut more than 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) of canals through the marsh for petroleum exploration and ship traffic. These new ditches sliced the wetlands into a giant jigsaw puzzle, increasing erosion and allowing lethal doses of salt water to infiltrate brackish and freshwater marshes.

While such loss hits every bayou-loving Louisianan right in the heart, it also hits nearly every U.S. citizen right in the wallet. Louisiana has the hardest working wetlands in America, a watery world of bayous, marshes, and barrier islands that either produces or transports more than a third of the nation's oil and a quarter of its natural gas, and ranks second only to Alaska in commercial fish landings. As wildlife habitat, it makes Florida's Everglades look like a petting zoo by comparison.

Such high stakes compelled a host of unlikely bedfellows—scientists, environmental groups, business leaders, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—to forge a radical plan to protect what's left. Drafted by the Corps a year ago, the Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA) project was initially estimated to cost up to 14 billion dollars over 30 years, almost twice as much as current efforts to save the Everglades. But the Bush Administration balked at the price tag, supporting instead a plan to spend up to two billion dollars over the next ten years to fund the most promising projects. Either way, Congress must authorize the money before work can begin.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 2, 2005 6:19 AM

"It was fully recognized by officials that we had Category Three [hurricane] level of protection," Strock said. "As projections of Category Four and Five were made, [officials] began plans to evacuate the city.

I am still completely at a loss for why this didn't happen.

Posted by: Timothy at September 2, 2005 4:26 PM

How would they do it? Think they've ever rehearsed it? Think you could get folks to leave? Do you know where you're supposed to go if your town is "evacuated?" Suppose a team of Nobel scientists walked into ABC News and said they could show with 100% certainty that the big one was about to hit LA and SF--think anything much different than what happened to N.O. would take place?

Color me dubious.

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2005 4:33 PM

Mr. Judd;

I think they could have at least avoided this kind of waste.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 2, 2005 5:10 PM

Who was going to drive the buses?

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2005 5:17 PM

Why not the same people who drive them for a living? Why not the National Guard? It's not hard to come up with a plan, the local government just needs to buckle down do it.

I believe Florida makes use of their buses during evacuations.

Posted by: Timothy at September 2, 2005 6:28 PM

"Who was going to drive the buses?"

Isn't it the job of the planning bureaucrats to figure out answers and propose solutions, to those sorts of questions, in advance? If someone came to me and said the solution to a problem was "evacuation", my immediate response would be "how?" and not accept any plan that didn't answer that question satisfactorily. (And as voter or management superior, I'd hold accountable anyone who would, or who didn't ask that question of "how".)

Maybe the failure here is for FEMA to not take into account the level of corruption and incompetence when making for some areas.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 2, 2005 6:59 PM

Because they're public employees in New Orleans--just try to get them to do anything.

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2005 7:00 PM

No one's defending the political culture of New Orleans here--well, except you, in saying that things would have happened exactly the same anywhere else.

But at least then the blame would have rested with those who refused to drive the buses, instead of those who just didn't bother to do anything with them.

Posted by: Timothy at September 2, 2005 7:04 PM

The blame belongs on all of us. Imagine the Right screaming about both the money it would have cost to prepare and the violation of property and civil rights it would have taken?

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2005 7:09 PM

Huh? What property & civil rights are you referring to, in particular?

For that matter, what cost? All I want is a simple evacuation plan, something I could sit down with a list of resources & a map of NO and come up with in an afternoon, if pressed.

Posted by: Timothy at September 2, 2005 7:24 PM

Please remember, OJ, that when anyone says "the blame belongs to all of us," that means in all actuality the blame belongs to NONE OF US.

This is the whole thought process that drives commissions and "Blue-Ribbon Panels."

And it's not just the school buses, either. The local Transit Authority still had buses parked on the streets after Katrina. Those should have been pressed into service as well.

Posted by: Brad S at September 2, 2005 7:56 PM

How much money does it take to draw up plans? Is there anywhere a goverment of more than a few thousand people that doesn't have at least one "Planning Department", especially when it comes to "Land Management"? We spend billions on environmental mitigation plans, then carry them out to the letter in the face of multi-billion dollar lawsuits from self-proclaimed "watchdog" groups. Where are the emergency management "watchdogs", and if none, why not?

(I must admit that it seems that for most bureaucrats, when faced with a threat that most likely will never occur on their watch, their "plan" is to pretend it won't happen ever, and ignore the threat completely. At least that's what the Yellowstone Wildfire Management Plan of March 1988 did with regards to planning for management of fires greater than a few thosand acres in size.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 2, 2005 8:18 PM


It's easy to order a corporation around, not all your voters.

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2005 9:33 PM


Yes. that's why the 9-11 panel wasn't useful. We all know that none of us cared enough about al qaeda to change anything.

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2005 9:35 PM


I meant abating the problem--moving folks, condemning property, etc.

But what good would an evacuation plan be that had never been rehearsed? Even elementary schools have drills. Try having a citywide evacuation drill and mandatory participation.

Posted by: oj at September 2, 2005 9:38 PM

I don't know what good it would be. Ask Florida. My guess? Better than nothing, which is roughly what we got.

Posted by: Timothy at September 2, 2005 11:10 PM

An evacuation drill would have probably resulted in crime and looting.

So....what's the next disaster were all ignoring?

Posted by: RC at September 3, 2005 6:27 AM


There's little or no security against terrorism. We've done little or nothing about cargo containers and the like in particular.

The San Andreas fault could make several cities look like N.O.

Social Security/Health Care can eventually swallow the federal budget

Interest only home loans...

etc., etc., etc.

We're reactive, not proactive.

Posted by: oj at September 3, 2005 7:58 AM

Relief services rehearse all the time for non-trivial disasters. You go through that part of the plan that you control to see what you might have overlooked, or what parts of the initial preparations you've missed.

They could have run a rehearsal in New Orleans that included having bus drivers show up and drive to the pickup points as if they are headed out. One thing that might have shown is that the busses aren't all fueled up, and that doing so at the emergency takes too long and there's not enough fuel on hand. So the plan gets changed to include, 72 hours earlier,that step.If the emergency fails to materialize, then all you are out is some gas that will get burned eventually. Or it might be better to stage the buses at the collection points, and have a few drivers move them while the actual emergency drivers report there (hopefully near their own homes). If you find out you don't have enough drivers, you figure out where you can get a volunteer pool on short notice. (Local service clubs like Lions?) Whatever. Just because you can't do a full reherasal is no excuse for at least not trying out the parts you can control and manage.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 4, 2005 12:50 PM

As someone who volunteers for local (Northern California) disaster organizing, I can tell you why full plans were either never made or never enacted- the public and the other parts of government cannot get their minds around the enormity of a disaster until it's already happened.

Everyone out here knows that there will be a 7.0 on the Hayward fault along Berkeley, Oakland, etc., but how many are trained to survive, have earthquake kits or even a meeting place if their house is uninhabitable? Not many. Local governments toss some coins at the problem but refuse to pony up real money. Ditto the private sector.

This year, next year, 10 years from now, the fault will go. The only question is when and how many people will die who could've been saved/trained.

Posted by: Jesse Townley at September 4, 2005 10:57 PM

And disaster exercises DO make a difference and are done- in New Orleans one a couple years back actually made them alter their response for the better.

But the infrastructure- the billions and billions needed to protect against/minimize the effects of a major disaster- cannot come from the local level. It comes from the state and the feds.

Posted by: Jesse Townley at September 4, 2005 11:00 PM


Posted by: oj at September 4, 2005 11:07 PM

If you're asking why the infrastructure funds should come from the state and feds and not from the local level, it's because that's where the $ is.

I'm not saying local $ wouldn't be used for a lot of other parts of disaster prep, but the real $ just isn't available- especially here in California where (like most states?) the state is taking $ from the county/city level to plug its own budget gap and leaving the locals to close libraries and slash funding for just about everything, including disaster prep/mitigation.

After the next earthquake, there will be just as many "I told you so" articles circulating- it's not brain surgery, the faults are active and will move. It can be incredibly frustrating!

Posted by: Jesse Townley at September 5, 2005 8:24 AM

It's one of the busiest ports in the world, how hard could it be to surcharge each shipment and use the money for infrastructure.

Posted by: oj at September 5, 2005 8:30 AM

Ms. Townley;

Every report I've seen is that the exercises done in New Orleans had no effect whatsoever beyond some editorial changes in disaster management documents that were utterly ignored during the disaster. I'd say, in fact, that the experience of New Orleans strongly supports OJ's point here.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at September 6, 2005 6:50 PM