Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, North America

U.S.: Four Years Post-Katrina, Levee Protection Still Elusive

Matthew Cardinale*

NEW ORLEANS, Jul 28 2009 (IPS) - Four years after Hurricane Katrina, there have been some significant improvements to the levees of New Orleans. However, even with work scheduled to be completed in 2011, advocates say the U.S. government has left the standard of protection at dangerously low levels.

Floodwaters surge across the top of a levee near New Orleans' Industrial Canal. The view is looking south to the Mississippi River. Credit: FEMA

Floodwaters surge across the top of a levee near New Orleans' Industrial Canal. The view is looking south to the Mississippi River. Credit: FEMA

The importance of levee protection in allowing Katrina victims to feel secure after the disastrous flooding of 2005 has led one former aerobics instructor, Sandy Rosenthal, to venture into politics and form an organisation called, which has been fighting for a higher standard of protection.

Rosenthal recently accompanied Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, on a fact-finding mission to the Netherlands to learn about their levee system.

"Right after Katrina and right after those widespread deficiencies everywhere of the federally designed system, the Bush administration proposed [99 percent] protection. What that means is, each year there will be a 1 percent chance the design will not be sufficient to protect the people," Rosenthal told IPS.

"To contrast that, Holland protects their people [with 99.99 percent] protection. In any one year in Holland, there is a one hundredth of a percent chance [of flooding] – a much, much smaller percent," Rosenthal said.

"I just got back from Holland and I saw this with my own eyes. It comes from a government decision to protect their people. Now, so why don't we have it in New Orleans?" Rosenthal said.

When Katrina struck land on Aug. 29, there were over 50 failures of the levees and floodwalls protecting New Orleans and nearby St. Bernard Parish, allowing millions of gallons of water to inundate vast areas of the city with 10 feet or more of water. Some 1,500 people were killed in New Orleans alone.

Five separate investigations followed into the levee and floodwall failures.

"By federal mandate, only the federal government can decide what we can and cannot have," Rosenthal told IPS. "We believe directly after Katrina there was widespread misinformation and disinformation that the levee failures were a local responsibility. That damage [to public perception] was significant… [and] is hard to undo."

"The people of Louisiana need a new model, and I believe we can incorporate some of the state-of-the-art technologies the Dutch have developed to protect their communities," Sen. Landrieu said in a statement following the trip to the Netherlands. "I am working to ensure we continue sharing ideas and best practices."

"I am also pushing the federal government to recognise the importance of South Louisiana and America's only Energy Coast to the nation. We must commit our country to protecting our communities and way of life. The friendship we have with the Netherlands, forged by water, will be an important part of the equation as we continue to rebuild and recover," Landrieu said.

Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is on track to get the levee system of the Lake Ponchartrain Basin Vicinity, which includes New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish, up to the federal standard of 99 percent protection by the end of 2011.

"The Corps of Engineers since Katrina has operated with a sense of urgency and they appear to be using much better engineering, as far as we can tell. We won't know until it's tested by a storm," Rosenthal said.

"The two most spectacular, most famous failures were done with engineering calculations so bad, an engineering student in 101 would've failed," Rosenthal said.

The USACE referred IPS to Ed Link, a faculty member at the University of Maryland in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and director of the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET), which reviewed the levee failures.

Link agreed there were at least four engineering failures made apparent in Katrina.

"The four flood walls that failed prior to water overtopping them certainly did not meet the criteria they were designed to. They were designs that failed, that didn't work the way they intended to work," Link said.

Out of 50 total levee breaches, the other 46 were due to "overtopping", or the levees not being high enough.

"Congress has appropriated in excess of 14 billion dollars. Work is under way now to raise the levee system for Greater New Orleans area to withstand [all but a] 100 year storm event," said Aaron Saunders, a spokesman for Sen. Landrieu. "Which is greater than it was before."

Link explained that the idea of 99 percent protection is a fairly new terminology that was developed in part to bring cities up to a standard that would satisfy insurers to insure home and business owners in those cities.

"The system was originally being planned… using climatology available at the time in 1965," after Hurricane Betsy and the federal government took over Hurricane protection for New Orleans, Link said.

"We know more about hurricanes now. We didn't have weather satellites. We couldn't view them from space. Data prior to the 1960s was landfall information, what did it look like on land?" Link said.

"I think for the most part [besides the four engineering failures], they met the criteria for design in 1965. But that criteria evolved over a period of time, and the design was not changed when some of the criteria changed," Link said.

Link explained that Katrina was initially a Category 5 storm, and was then downgraded to Category 3 when it hit land – still the largest surge ever recorded in North America, due to both its size and intensity.

"Katrina was actually a 1 in 400 year event, when you look at that probability of pressure and size on that path," Link said.

"Back in 1965… they did design something called the standard project hurricane, a storm configured to represent what the scientists at the time felt would be the most severe event that would be reasonably possible. At that time, it was viewed to be about a 100 year storm," Link said.

"Right now, the 100 year storm of 1965 would not be a 100 year storm today. I don't know what it would be, somewhere between 50 and 100, 50 and 75," Link said.

When asked whether Sen. Landrieu or others have fought in Congress for an even higher standard of protection for New Orleans such as the one used by the Dutch, Saunders said the senator focused on "what parts of the Dutch model we can apply".

"But the severity of the storm events [in the Netherlands], when they refer to one in 1,000, it doesn't necessarily match up. We can't just pick up the exact Dutch terminology and modeling," he said.

Rosenthal disagreed, and believes the United States should strive for at least 1 in 1,000, if not 1 in 10,000, like the Dutch have.

"What he's referring to, it might not match up with the same storm surge. We can get 30 foot storm surges, they don't get 30 foot storm surges in Holland. But that's irrelevant. The storm is different, but the math is the same. People are trying to protect the Corps, saying you know storms are different in Holland; so what? It doesn't matter. We have the technology to do this," Rosenthal said.

Link noted that the water level in East New Orleans is about 16.5 feet of surge, while the Dutch 1 in 10,000 water level at the hook of Holland is 16.5 feet, "exactly the same".

"The key is, what is the political will of the nation? And what would that water level be in New Orleans? It's gonna be really high. I don't know what it is frankly, but it's probably another 10 feet higher. The question has to be actually, is it feasible, can you build reliable structures that high, and if you could, what would the cost be?"

"I'm not defending the 100 year level," Link said. "I think it's a very good baseline, but I certainly don't think it's the end-all, it's not where you stop."

Landrieu's office also pointed to the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Rehabilitation (LACPR) Final Technical report, currently in draft form, that the senator called for, "to lay out alternative plans for increased protection to a higher level, all the way from doing nothing, to 1 in 400 or 500 year protection. That report is under public review and they've had public meetings," Saunders said.

"That report is to provide alternatives for Congress to consider to authorise," Saunders said. "The senator is awaiting this [final] comprehensive report… the feasibility of additional protection for all of the Gulf Coast," which includes New Orleans.

"Making New Orleans safer is extraordinarily important. It's true we are 9 out of 535 [congressional delegations]. That's the senator's job to convince people of the importance of this," Saunders said.

*This is the first of a two-part series on the lingering human and environmental impacts of Hurricane Katrina.

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