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Can New Orleans’ Revamped Levee System Withstand Next Storm?

August 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The state of the levee system in New Orleans continues to be a major concern, especially during hurricane season. Jeffrey Brown gets two views on the city's revamped coastal protection system.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to a second Katrina story on the state of levees and flood protection today.

As powerful as Hurricane Katrina was when it landed east of New Orleans five years ago, the city wasn’t submerged immediately. Heavy flooding began overnight, as a storm surge and waves overwhelmed a 350-mile-long network of levees, flood walls, pumps, gates and canals that were supposed to protect the city and parts of the surrounding area.

The levees gave way. Eighty percent of the metropolitan area was submerged.

MAN: This scene is being replayed throughout this city, everywhere, people waving frantically, trying to get our attention and our help. It’s just such a helpless feeling.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the aftermath, new and urgent questions arose: How much of This disaster was natural and how much manmade, as it became clear that the levee system built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was flawed and deeply inadequate?

Engineers pointed to a series of problems, including shoddy construction of some levees. In 2006, civil engineer Bob Bea talked to Betty Ann Bowser about one levee located near a shipping canal popularly known as Mr. Go.

BOB BEA, Civil Engineer, University of California, Berkeley: It was badly flawed at concept, design, construction. Then we followed that into operations and then maintenance, and it caught up with us.

We’ve actually met and talked with the engineers that were on the site at the time they built this levee. And, at that time, they knew they were using dredge spoil from the construction of Mr. Go.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Which is below their standards?

BOB BEA: Is below their standards.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a sweeping 6,000-page report that same year, the Army Corps of Engineers admitted that hurricane protection system for Southeast Louisiana had been — quote — “a system in name only.”

In response, Congress ordered the Corps to devise a new protection plan, a $15 billion project that is well under way and is expected to be finished next year. Among much else, new levees are built with steadier walls, walls shaped like a T. that are braced more strongly into the ground.

The Army Corps says that, when completed, the new system will reduce the risk from hurricanes and once-in-a-hundred-year storms.

And we get two views on the city’s new coastal protection system from John Barry, a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority and author of a book about the great Mississippi flood of 1927, “Rising Tide,” and Ivor Van Heerden, co-author of the state of Louisiana’s report on the levee failure issued after Katrina. He’s a former deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and now works for a private company that does work on oil spills.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Barry, you follow this. Does it look like what’s being built now is more of an actual system that can protect the city?

JOHN BARRY, Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority: Well, it is a system. And I think that, while our board has some points of contention with the Corps, it is well built and it will do what it’s designed to do. I think one thing that you need to make clear is, you said a one-in-100-year storm. In fact, what it’s protected against is a storm with a 1 percent chance of hitting in any given year, and that’s actually a much different thing.

Over a 100-year period is really a 63 percent chance that a storm greater than the protection system will hit. Now, that is not the fault of the Corps of Engineers. They’re building what they were told to do.

We have an inadequate standard throughout the United States. In every community that’s exposed to floods, it’s the same 100-year standard.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, thanks for clearing that up. Ivor Van Heerden, you’re one of the people that has raised a lot of questions here. Start with the levees themselves. What — is the new construction plan better? What do you see?

IVOR VAN HEERDEN, former deputy director, Louisiana State University Hurricane Center: Well, I think the repairs are very robust. And — and, certainly, the Corps has taken some of the advice from groups like ours. They — they’re replacing earthen levees with T-walls. They have built a structure in the so-called Mr. Go funnel that created 80 percent of the flooding during Katrina.

But I still have major concerns with the science. You know, they — I hear what John’s saying on the one-in-a-hundred year. I would argue the 1965 Flood Control Act supersedes that. But the levies aren’t going to offer any more protection than what we saw with Katrina.

If we had another storm like Katrina, we will still see significant flooding, and the worst would be a storm like Katrina that actually hits New Orleans. A storm that comes west of the city, and certainly if it was a little slower, would overtop many of the levee systems.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, John Barry, what’s examples of the structural changes that you see that would make things better in a next storm?

JOHN BARRY: Well, the real focus there would be not so much raising the levees more, although that would be part of it. But it would be rebuilding the coast. The — the — Louisiana’s lost 2,300 square miles of land, most of it in the last 50 years, because of all sorts of manmade interventions. Now, that’s more than the state of Delaware. If you put Delaware between New Orleans and the ocean, we wouldn’t need any levees at all.

So, what we really need to do is rebuild the coast, which has eroded for the benefit of the shipping industry, which means interstate and international commerce and the oil industry, which has dredged canals through the marsh, primarily.

And even — you know, the — the land here was all built by the deposit of sediment of the Mississippi River. And there are six dams in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota that have now retained one-third of all the sediment that the Mississippi River used to deliver to this area to sustain the coast.

So, there’s a multiplicity of factors involved in this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Van Heerden, that’s an area that I think you agree with, this problem of the erosion of the wetlands. Explain — explain what you see there.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Well, you know, a healthy moss will reduce the surge by at least a foot per mile. A healthy swamp will reduce the surge by about six feet per mile.

And, you know, we have lost, as John was saying, this protection, this apron of protection that used to ensure that we could survive on the coast. Since Katrina, just for instance, we have lost over 100,000 acres of our wetlands.

The real issue is, the Corps of Engineers was tossed by Congress, in parallel to doing the concrete, the levees, to develop a plan to restore coast. And that plan is still not out. That is still not achieved. And, once again, it looks like the Corps’ main interest is pouring concrete, rather than getting into what we really have to do, and that’s allow the Mississippi River to mimic the natural processes that built our coast, allow the river to run free, and let’s rebuild the coast before it’s too late.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I should say that we did ask a representative from the Army Corps to join us tonight, but they weren’t able to.

John Barry, I want to put you in your historian’s hat a bit here. Is there — when you look back now five years later, is there a consensus, is there even an agreement on exactly what happened? I was talking in our setup piece about this mix of the natural vs. manmade disaster. Where do things stand on the kind of thinking about that?

JOHN BARRY: I don’t know. I think Ivor and I agree on 95 percent of the thing. I think there is a consensus by everybody who — who really looked at it that understands it was a manmade disaster, both in the narrow sense, because the flood walls were poorly designed. They were not over — most of the city was — was flooded from the rear, from Lake Pontchartrain. And the water there didn’t come higher than two feet below the top.

In fact, I think Ivor and I were probably two — certainly among the first people to point out those walls just collapsed, and didn’t do what they were designed.

And then, in the larger sense, it was manmade because of some of the things that we talked about. The destruction of the coast is not an accident. It’s a direct result of the engineering of the river and the shipping industry and oil and gas and so forth and levees as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: But your sense is — just staying with you, your sense is that lessons have been learned, are in the process of being learned?

JOHN BARRY: Well, I think engineers are pretty much in agreement on the failures, yes. In some cases, the precise actual mechanism of failure may be in dispute, some highly technical points, but the basics, that it was an engineering failure, I think there’s wide agreement on that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Van Heerden, what about the larger question, I guess, of whether New Orleans can ever be completely safe? We’re talking about things that are happening now. You have both talked about some things that could be done, particularly with the coastal wetlands.

What about that larger question?

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Well, I think if we well-engineered the levee system, and stopped our mismanagement of the Mississippi River, and utilized the river to build wetlands, if we went and started to do real barrier island restoration, we could have a system where the barrier islands would protect the wetlands, the wetlands would protect the levees, and the levees would protect us.

And I agree. You know, I have worked with some Dutch engineers who feel we can give New Orleans one-in-1,500-year protection quite cost-effectively. But it has to be this multiple approach, these kind of lines of defense. And, unfortunately, right now, we’re just stuck on pouring concrete. And we have got to get into the coastal restoration. I stress again, since Katrina, we have lost 100,000 acres of our protection.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there.

Ivor Van Heerden and John Barry, thank you both very much.

IVOR VAN HEERDEN: Thank you very much.

JOHN BARRY: Thank you.