Climate Change, Environment, Headlines, North America

ENVIRONMENT-US: The Lessons of the Levees

Mark Weisenmiller* - IPS/IFEJ

MIAMI, Jul 12 2007 (IPS) - Despite mounting data that storms coming out of the Gulf of Mexico could bring catastrophic flooding to the U.S. Gulf Coast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) failed to implement a proposed barrier plan in New Orleans that would have used floodgates to keep storm surge out of Lake Pontchartrain and the canals leading into the city.

Large parts of New Orleans remain flooded two weeks after several levees failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Credit: Bob McMillan/ FEMA Photo

Large parts of New Orleans remain flooded two weeks after several levees failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Credit: Bob McMillan/ FEMA Photo

A self-assessment released Wednesday by the USACE said that a long-term budget crunch, flawed levee design and shoddy construction materials all contributed to the disaster.

“There were 53 breaches (of levees) in greater New Orleans due to Katrina,” Sandy Rosenthal, executive director of, a citizens oversight group, told IPS.

“At the base of our discontent is the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There’s been plenty of mea culpas from them, but there’s been no change in the day-to-day operations of the Corps here,” she said.

Almost 1,600 people were killed in Louisiana alone in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded a large swathe of the state in late August 2005. Nearly 900,000 people lost electrical power in their homes and businesses due to the hurricane.

The Gulf coast of Mississippi also suffered major losses, with 238 people dead and 67 missing.

In total, the storm wreaked about 85 billion dollars in damages, easily the costliest hurricane in U.S. history and almost twice the dollar damages of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The number of residual casualties and fatalities due to Hurricane Katrina is incalculable.

“By and large, we need better constructed levees,” said H.J. Bosworth Jr., a civil engineer and research director for “They (the USACE) repaired the weak spots (in the levees), but didn’t do anything to strengthen the weak spots in the levees that didn’t break through – but may, with the next powerful storm.”

Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Centre and a vociferous critic of the USACE’s work regarding levees in the New Orleans area, echoed Bosworth Jr.’s sentiments.

“Whenever they can cut the cost of a levee project, they did. There are geo-technical tests that can be done, by doing soil strength tests before the building of the levees,” he said, adding that this was not done.

Van Heerden gave written testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, one of the numerous committees that led the five separate investigations into the levee and floodwall failures.

“Most of the flooding of New Orleans was due to man’s follies,” Van Heerden told Congress. “Society owes those who lost their lives, and the approximately 100,000 families who lost all, an apology and needs to stand up to the plate and rebuild homes and compensate for their lost means of employment.”

Vic Harris, a spokesperson for the USACE, told IPS that, “The first thing that we learned (from Hurricane Katrina) was of our responses in emergency situations. You’ve got to have a plan if you have a breach in a levee.”

“We learned from Katrina that we didn’t have proper communications equipment to be in contact with the appropriate local and state agencies. We also learned that we need rehearsals before a big storm, such as the testing of our equipment,” he said, adding that work on the levees is ongoing.

A New Orleans engineer who agrees that the levee system is now more durable “but still needs improvement” is Carlton Dufrechou, director of the 50,000-member non-governmental organisation Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

“Overall, my opinion is that the levee system is better than on Aug. 29, 2005 (when Hurricane Katrina washed over the city and much of the state). The system is actually in much better shape than before the storm. I believe that the new floodgates (built by the USACE) which were built on Lake Pontchartrain are the most significant part of the whole rebuilding process.”

Dufrechou, who worked for the USACE from 1986 to 1992, was asked about van Heerden’s assertion, borne out in Wednesday’s report, that the USACE cut corners on levee projects. “The federal guidelines (for USACE projects), at least when I was with the Corps, is to try to get the most benefits for flood protection for the least cost,” he said.

State officials stress that the two main reasons for the high casualty rate after the levees broke – poor communications and inadequate transportation for evacuees – have now been addressed.

“For citizens who have text messaging capabilities (on mobile phones), we will soon have the ability to get in contact with all of these people to warn them if a storm is imminent. For those people without text messaging, especially the people in our poorer parishes, we now have more volunteers, post-Katrina, to help evacuate these people,” said John Forrest Ales, a spokesperson for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco.

“We have created more evacuation routes, so there will not be the clogged roadways that you saw on TV during Katrina,” said Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Louisiana State Police Public Information Officer Lawrence McCleary told IPS that incompatible communications equipment among different rescue operations was “a big problem”.

“So what we did was to go to a 700 (megahertz) system, so that we all can communicate with each other. There have been great leaps in compatible communications here in Louisiana since Katrina,” he said.

Scientists also note that there is better understanding the “Loop Current”, a warm, clockwise flow that extends northward into the Gulf of Mexico and joins the Yucatan Current and the Florida Current.

It is as deep as 150 metres in some spots, and “gives fuel to hurricanes, which makes the storms larger,” explained Dr. Nan Walker, an oceanographer and instructor at Louisiana State University.

Both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita greatly increased in strength when they passed over the warmer waters of the Loop Current.

“I think that scientists, and the public, are more aware of the Loop Current, and the intensifications of hurricanes due to it, because of Katrina,” he said. “There are [now] 10 different hurricane models that are used by hurricane centres in tracking these storms.”

Climate change is also a factor in the emergence of extremely powerful Category 5 storms like Katrina.

“The impact of global warming on hurricanes is a complex topic,” Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Science Studies told IPS by e-mail. “We don’t have a reliable answer for the net effect of global warming on the number of hurricanes, as there are effects that work both ways.”

However, he added, “There is a potential for having stronger, and thus more damaging, hurricanes with global warming. That result is nearly certain.”

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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