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New Orleans, Then and Now

As a new disaster bears down on the Gulf Coast, NOVA revisits a catastrophe from which the region is still recovering, Hurricane Katrina, with a May 18 rebroadcast of Storm That Drowned A City.

A lot has changed since Storm That Drowned A City premiered, just five months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. A lot has changed--and then again, a lot hasn't. I wanted to find out what new structural safeguards are protecting the region and whether New Orleans will be ready for the next hurricane season.

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The answer, it seems, is that "we're getting there." The Army Corps of Engineers is giving out almost $15 billion in contracts for new and improved levees, floodwalls, pump stations, surge barriers, and navigation gates under the Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. The goal is to provide New Orleans with "100-year level protection" by the time 2011 blows in. That means that the city would be fortified against the kind of storm you'd expect to see only once every hundred years--or, to put it another way, the kind of storm which has a 1% chance of striking in any given year.

Some highlights of the new system:

Will it be enough? A report released last year by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council argues that 100-year protection just isn't sufficient. In fact, the authors argue, it is impossible to "make the city safe" from storms: Structural improvements can only make the city safer and, at their worst, can instill a false sense of security in those living below sea level.

But truly rebuilding the city is about more than just infrastructure--it's about restoring vibrant communities. City planners working in the region point out that safety improvements are necessary, but not sufficient, to bringing populations back to some of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods, like the Lower 9th Ward, Gentilly, Florida and Desire. (The total population is hovering around 2/3 of its pre-Katrina count.) Here, city and neighborhood leaders must decide how and where to rebuild; what to do with abandoned and hazardous homes; and how to give residents that have dispersed to the diaspora confidence that they have a neighborhood to come home to.

Special thanks to Wade Habshey, public affairs officer at the Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Hope, and David Dixon, leader of Planning and Urban Design at Goody Clancy in Boston, for their insight on this post.

Image: The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal surge barrier, under construction. Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers.

User Comments:

Saw "Storm that drowned at city" for the first time. It is merely a reguritation of journalistic myth and pop science.

Sad to see Nova unable to rise above mediocrity.

It is NOT impossible to make New Orleans safe from storms. Providing the main basin of the city with 500 year protection would require only two feet more of levee height and would cost millions not billions. The main basin is where most of the people and infrasture are.

St. Louis, Dallas and Kansas City have 500 year protections. New Orleans can too.

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