Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
Katrina’s Real Lesson
Blame inadequate infrastructure, not poverty, for the storm’s devastation.
28 August 2006

Selected Responses:

Sent by Gerard Muller on 08-29-2006:

While it is true that the levees and their associated infrastructure were not up to the task of defending against Katrina, what sort of infrastructure could have performed well against the most powerful storm ever seen in this country? As I recall, 90,000 square miles were affected or, put another way, 900 miles of coastline ranging up to 100 miles inland were affected by this super-storm. If this had occurred on the eastern seaboard it would have ranged from New York to Florida! Imagine those consequences.

As to citing the Dutch efforts after the massive storm they encountered over 50 years ago, it's important to realize that that storm was less severe than Katrina and has not re-occurred since then, so the improvements the Dutch made have yet to be tested.

While it is important to consider what failed and what could have been done better to mitigate the damage, the fact remains that for the entire Gulf region affected by this massive storm, little could have been done to protect it. There is no way to armor 90,000 square miles against a storm of Katrina's magnitude.

Nicole Gelinas responds:

While Katrina was a powerful storm, it fell within the design parameters that the levees and floodwalls were supposed to protect New Orleans from. It was not a Category 5 any more when it made landfall in Mississippi, and it did not hit New Orleans dead-on. The definition of a civil-engineering failure is when something is supposed to perform to certain standards and doesn't. If the Corps cannot protect New Orleans from a 100-year storm for a reasonable cost, it should say so: then we have a different story. But the Corps did not simply throw up its hands after Katrina and declare it a failure that was beyond its control: it painstakingly tried to reconstruct what went wrong.

Katrina's worst flooding could have been mitigated with fixes that were very possible: installing massive gates to lock off the canals, building its levees with the much wider, "armored" foundations, and, yes, simply not developing the parts of the city that were the most vulnerable to massive flooding, thus allowing for natural and directed drainage that keeps sediment flowing into the wetlands of the Mississippi. (That last part, to be fair, may be hindsight, but we can certainly learn from it now.)

The Netherlands regularly experiences storm surges of 13 feet high in the winter from the North Sea; further, the fact that three major rivers (the Rhine, the Meuse and the Schelde) flow through it make it, in many ways, very similar to New Orleans. The flood that killed more than 1,800 people in 1953 was due to a North Sea storm surge. New Orleans's flood-protection system is not to protect against hurricane wind, it is to protect against the storm surges that go along with the wind and rain, so comparing it to the Netherlands is fair, even though, of course, no comparison is ever perfect. And, in fact, a century ago, the Netherlands used New Orleans's technology for its first flood-control measures; however, New Orleans has not kept up with the Netherlands since then.

Sent by Frank Locaparra on 08-29-2006:

The real lesson is that one should not build a city below sea level in the first place. New Orleans was a mistake. We should not spend any more time and effort repeating that mistake. As I recall, almost all of Holland is below sea level and that is why the Dutch have spent so much time and effort trying to save their country.

If the port of New Orleans is important to our country then we should move the place where we build housing, etc. inland, above sea level, and let the port go up to that point.

Why would anyone in their right mind want to live in a city below sea level, protected by levees that are targets for Nature as well as terrorists? Times have changed and we should change with them.

The last time I was in New Orleans was in 1969. The people who lived there were concerned about the levees and their lives and property at that time and probably since the levees were built. It has always been a bad idea.

Nicole Gelinas responds:

But the federal government is not making that argument: i.e. that New Orleans should not be rebuilt. If the government were making that argument, logical consistency, at least, would exist: we won't build adequate infrastructure because we won't rebuild the city. Instead, the feds are going off to New Orleans and, very likely, trying to build a city without the necessary infrastructure. This is illogical on their part: if anything can be the backbone of the city, it has to be the infrastructure.

Sent by Ethir Nandor on 08-29-2006:

I often hear the response that New Orleans should be abandoned. As a Dutch man, I don't understand why. It is MUCH easier and cheaper to protect land against a storm surge than against earthquakes or even twisters. Are they seriously considering evacuating all US states where there are natural risks?

The whole situation can be totally blamed on consistent negligence of the necessary infrastructure, not the fact of living below sea level itself.

Besides, in the estimates I have seen so far it is a LOT cheaper to build Cat-5 protection (about $30 billion) than to move New Orleans as a city ($100+ billion).

Sent by John Kelly on 08-29-2006:

Ms. Gelinas states in the first sentence of her piece that the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina is a story "of the greatest failure of civil engineering in American history." As a civil engineer (licensed in California) I can tell you that this statement is factually incorrect. Ms. Gelinas makes my case by listing all the reasons that civil engineers weren't allowed to build the infrastructure needed to protect New Orleans. These reasons were all political. This wasn't a failure of civil engineering. It was a failure of politicians to do the right thing. It was a failure of voters to elect honest leaders. It was multiple failures of news media to inform the public. You can blame a lot of groups for this, but one group you cannot blame is civil engineers.

Protecting a city of hundreds of thousands that is hard by the coast and fifteen feet below it is not impossible. It's just expensive. Spend the money needed, or don't try at all.

Despite her initial trip and fall, Ms. Gelinas has the state of infrastructure spending pegged. We spend much less on real public works (not infrastructure) than we used to, and much of what is built with "infrastructure" money is not really public works. California will have four bonds on the ballot in November, two that will go to "education" and one that will go to "affordable" housing. Another, the largest of the four ($20 billion of a $37 billion total), will go to "transportation." Unfortunately, some transportation projects will be murals on the facades of public transportation portals to entice people to use the system, advertising campaigns to entice people to use the system, subsidizing of fares to entice people to use the system, and . . . well, you get the picture. Probably far less than half of the $20 billion will go to actual construction, upgrade or rehabilitation of any road, freeway, airport or harbor. When it costs $700 million to build 13 miles of light rail from downtown L.A. to east Pasadena, $20 billion doesn't go very far, especially when half of it doesn't go anywhere.

So, there are two problems. One, spend enough money on the project, whether it's levees for New Orleans or Sacramento, or don't start. Spending some money but not enough gives citizens a false sense of security. Two, stop calling schools and day care centers infrastructure. They're not. Infrastructure, real public works—sewage systems, water systems, flood control, roads, power plants—is what you need before you can build the school.

Sent by Stan Bennett on 08-29-2006:

Infrastructure, yeah, but not the way you see it. The Mississippi is confined to continue flowing past New Orleans; if there were no barriers it would change course near Natchez, MS, where the Corps of Engineers maintains a barrier to prevent course change, and then to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya. The millions of tons of sediment now being dumped to the deeper Gulf would then be deposited and rebuild the wetlands. As it now flows, this sediment accelerates the sinking of New Orleans and increases "the problem of the levees." The correct remedy—abandon New Orleans, let the river flow free. Does anyone have the courage to suggest this?—hell no!

Though President Bush declared on Saturday that Hurricane Katrina exposed “deep-seated poverty” in America, the disaster isn’t ultimately a story of poverty or of race, but of the greatest failure of civil engineering in American history. Luckily, while the nation has never been able to solve poverty, it can solve the engineering problem at the heart of southern Louisiana’s potential recovery.

First, some history. Like the Netherlands, much of urban and suburban New Orleans is below sea level. New Orleans started building rudimentary levees to protect residents and businesses from flooding in the mid-1700s, after settlers realized that their city’s vital economic asset, its position at the mouth of the Mississippi, was also its greatest liability.

This liability intensified two centuries later, when New Orleans drained low-lying swamps to build neighborhoods right on Lake Pontchartrain, and when erosion, much of it from the digging of canals that allowed for oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico, destroyed half of the 2,800 square miles of wetlands that protected the coast, thereby moving the Gulf 20 miles closer to the city. Those miles proved vital, because storms weaken as they pass over land. Man-made shipping canals within New Orleans would also funnel floodwaters into populated areas.

But as the risks facing New Orleans grew more complex, New Orleans’s hurricane protection system—its levees, floodwalls, and natural barriers such as wetlands—didn’t keep up. The Army Corps of Engineers started building today’s hurricane protection system in 1965, after Hurricane Betsy flooded many of the same areas that Katrina inundated 40 years later. (The feds pay for 70 percent of the system, partly because they earn royalties from offshore energy production.)

Katrina was the biggest test of the 350 miles of levees and floodwalls that the Corps built and refurbished over the past 40 years—and the system crashed, buckling under 50 major breaks and spilling millions of gallons of water into the city. And Katrina was far from a worst-case scenario.

The Corps’ post-mortem of Katrina tells the story: “the system did not perform as a system,” its engineers concluded. “The hurricane protection in New Orleans . . . was a system in name only. . . . The majority, approximately two-thirds by volume, of the flooding and half of the economic losses can be attributed to water flowing through breaches in floodwalls and levees.” The failures weren’t due to construction malfeasance or incompetence: “the system was built as designed,” the Corps concluded. But the system was, in many ways, conceived to fail. In the Corps’ view, it was inconsistently designed and lacked redundancy—that is, back-up protections.

Some levees, in particular the massive earthen fortresses with wide foundations, performed well, withstanding days of water pressure with little erosion. But floodwalls designed as narrow vertical walls driven into the ground—they look like the walls built on highways to block out the noise—performed abysmally.

First, some walls had sunk up to three feet lower than their original “authorized heights” before the storm. Second, the pressure of Katrina’s waters wore away the walls’ narrow vertical foundations because they weren’t “armored” with erosion-proof material, causing the structures to topple into the water. And because the system wasn’t redundant, each break caused additional weaknesses.

Why didn’t the Corps design a consistent, redundant system? In large part, the reason was foot dragging—or worse—by pols on the state, local, and federal levels. In some cases, political opposition prevented the Corps from seizing land to build sturdier foundations. Plus, Louisiana’s local levee boards were lousy stewards. Levee officials were political animals, not engineering experts, and sometimes proved more interested in running ancillary “economic development” projects than working with the Corps to make sure the levees were up to their task. (It’s not because New Orleans is poor and black: the levees protect New Orleans’s richer, whiter suburbs too.) In addition, the Corps warned that many of New Orleans’s manmade canals, obsolete for years, should be closed or at least gated—to no avail. Moreover, when the Corps, along with state officials, came to understand that wetlands restoration is a vital part of the flood protection system, not a tree-hugger’s afterthought, Congress balked at spending the required $14 billion over several decades for coastal restoration.

Public officials have unfortunately lost interest in such rational infrastructure investment, doubtless because entitlement spending has consumed budgets as well as politicians’ attention. As the American Society of Civil Engineers warned last year, “congested highways, overflowing sewers and corroding bridges are constant reminders of the looming crisis that jeopardizes our nation’s prosperity and our quality of life.” As entitlement spending has gobbled up the federal budget, spending on infrastructure has fallen to about half where it was as a percentage of GDP 40 years ago; state and local infrastructure spending lags as well.

So have Americans and New Orleanians learned Katrina’s main lesson: that investment in physical infrastructure is vital? While it’s too early to tell, Congress has awarded around $6 billion—only 5 percent or so of Gulf Coast reconstruction money—to repair the broken levees and to erect gates at key flood-prone areas. After that money is spent, though, New Orleans’s system won’t be any less of a patchwork. Floodwalls in areas that didn’t bear the brunt of last year’s hurricane, but that still sit in the path of a powerful storm, remain vulnerable to the same erosion that toppled walls during Katrina.

Beyond the fast fixes, the Corps has a year and a half to present to Congress its plan to protect Louisiana’s coast from a “100-year hurricane.” For one idea, they can look to the Dutch, who treat life below sea level as an opportunity to create modern engineering marvels. After a 1953 flood that killed more people than Katrina did, the Dutch built sand dunes to prevent erosion, along with a functional network of gates, walls, sluices, and pumps—and they constantly look for ways to upgrade the network.

But to follow the Dutch lead, the pols need convincing that engineering know-how, and the political willpower for infrastructure spending, is the most important part of rebuilding. Moreover, how the feds and New Orleans respond over the long term has implications for the nation, as its own infrastructure needs grow even more complex. New York’s subways, for instance, now need state-of-the-art protection from terrorists, and Las Vegas and other western cities, of course, rely on complex engineering to assure fresh supplies of water in the desert.

President Bush’s recent rhetoric thus doesn’t help New Orleans or the nation. He still talks as if poverty, and not inadequate design and investment in the plain, old, boring infrastructure that makes all cities work, was responsible for Katrina’s tragic devastation.

SHARE
selected responses SELECTED RESPONSES HIDE RESPONSES
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: