Climate Change, Environment, Headlines, North America

U.S.: Levee Uncertainty Weighs on Katrina’s Displaced

Matthew Cardinale*

NEW ORLEANS, Jul 30 2009 (IPS) - Today, the population of New Orleans is still about 175,000 people fewer than it was before Hurricane Katrina hit four years ago next month. Along with concerns about jobs and housing costs, the city’s vulnerability to flooding has weighed heavily on the minds of many evacuees, many of whom have not returned.

A search and rescue worker and his canine partner enter a damaged house to search for victims of Hurricane Katrina on Sep. 3, 2005.  Credit: US Govt

A search and rescue worker and his canine partner enter a damaged house to search for victims of Hurricane Katrina on Sep. 3, 2005. Credit: US Govt

In the first part of this series, IPS explained how the levees are being built up to a new standard of protection – essentially 99 percent protection each year – scheduled to be completed by the end of 2011, and that Holland, by comparison, uses a higher standard of 99.99 percent protection.

Unfortunately, most New Orleanians, both current residents and in the diaspora, have very little understanding of what level of protection is being promised. Neither the local nor national media have asked the tough questions, said Sandy Rosenthal, executive director of

People in New Orleans see work being done on the levees, but they generally sense that the level of protection being promised would not be strong enough to handle another hurricane on the scale of Katrina. The street wisdom is that the new levees might be strong enough for a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, but certainly not a 5.

In reality, the scale which measures hurricanes in categories 1 through 5, the Saffir-Simpson scale, speaks to intensity or wind speed, not to flood levels, the latter of which are more important to the issue of levee protection, several experts told IPS. Ed Link of the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, which studied the Hurricane Katrina levee failures, said the scientific community is debating whether to create a new category system that is both meaningful and that people can understand. He declined to identify a category level which would describe the level of protection, using Saffir-Simpson, that would be offered by the new levees.

All of this uncertainty is leaving many evacuees feeling in limbo.

“Still now we wish there was some way we could go back,” Lucretia Jackson, 39, told IPS. Jackson evacuated one day before the storm and eventually settled in Portland, Oregon, along with her husband and son, who was born three months after Katrina.

“Given the intensity of the storm and the depth of the damage, we realised there was no way we could put our lives on hold,” Jackson said. “We knew as early as December 2005 we wouldn’t be back any time soon as permanent residents, sadly. It’s the risk of hurricane damage, the lack of infrastructure.”

“If you sort of have this list of concerns about the city – crime, the educational system – the levees are almost a symbol that overshadows all other concerns, the instability, the vulnerability, the lack of sustainability,” Jackson said.

Jackson said she relied on for information about what was happening.

“I tried to find out what was going on. Why isn’t there a website? To get basics communicated, from any group, the city, the Corps [US Army Corps of Engineers]?” Jackson said.

“I found it was impossible to trust anything I was hearing. I know a lot of work was been done, a lot of progress. I think there’s a big question mark over it, and I don’t trust any of the stakeholders involved, the City, the Levee Board, the Corps,” Jackson said.

When told that 99 percent protection is supposed to be online by the end of 2011, Jackson said, “99 percent would be certainly more comfortable than I feel now”.

“If we can get a guarantee of basic protection, then [we] might feel comfortable relocating there,” she added.

Meanwhile, some see race and class disparities not only in the way the levees were engineered pre-Katrina, but in the way the rebuilding has been prioritised across neighbourhoods.

“We have had improvements in flood protection, but the problem is that it has tended to have a racially disparate impact,” said Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University.

“So the first sort of initial funding of work was concentrated on the 17th Street Canal, the breach which affected primarily the Lakefront, where the residents are mostly white,” Hill told IPS.

“The outcome was that the new flood maps that were released maybe 18 months ago by the Corps… Anyone would understand that was a demographic map of white and black New Orleans,” Hill said.

“The predominantly black neighbourhoods of the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans East, and Gentilly had virtually no increase in flood protection,” Hill said.

Hill explained that the flooding of African American neighbourhoods came from different directions, including the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, referred to as Mr. GO.

“The Corps debated for a long time about what to do with Mr. GO. The overwhelming consensus in the African American community was that it needed to be sealed off and it needed to be done quickly. The shipping interests were opposed to that because it’s a shortcut from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico,” Hill said.

“The second is the Industrial Canal. The flooding to the 9th Ward came through the Industrial Canal, through the intercoastal waterway. That was the breach of the levee that led to the tsunami effect in the Lower 9th Ward. The solution to that was relatively simple, to shut the canal down, or put gates into the flood of the canal,” Hill said.

“Four years out, almost 2010, the work the Corps agreed to do with Mr. GO is not completed. And the levee protection around New Orleans East also is not completed,” he said.

“For the most part, even if these plans go as expected, Gentilly, New Orleans East, and the 9th Ward won’t be adequately protected until 2011, or six years after Katrina,” Hill added.

The advocacy group,, does not believe there have been intentional race or class disparities in the levee damage or their rebuilding. They prefer to focus on how the levee failures affected everybody, and how even the level of protection promised by the end of 2011 – 99 percent protection – is not high enough for anybody.

“We at do not believe the Corps discriminated on the basis of race when they built the Lake Pontchartain and Vicinity Flood Protection. The failures were an equal opportunity destroyer. Everyone suffered,” Rosenthal said.

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

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