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.


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