[I've been planning this one for a while, so set on down, grab a cup of coffee (or the vodka if you prefer to swing that way) 'cuz I gots a lot to say.]
When it comes to flood protection, too many of us haven't admitted this. Everyone in the world knows we have a bit of a drainage & elevation problem, but I'm asking how many of us in the N.O. area have been honest enough to outwardly admit that we have in fact exacerbated and even caused -- Oh yes I did say it -- our own flood protection problems. At the very least we ignore the obvious, even to the point of denial, and you only need to have watched one after-school special to know that people who are in denial are nowhere near to achieving recovery (no matter how blonde and popular you are, nor whether you're prom queen).
Ironically, it's the citizen group working to improve our flood protection system, Levees.org, that has added a lot of the fuel to this fire, first with what I saw on their FAQ and Factsheet pages and then by their founder's allegations that the Corps has been unfairly attacking her and all citizens by saying that we are partly to blame for the 2005 federal flood.
Well, we are. And it's high time we stop running from that sad, uncomfortable truth. I don't believe we are to blame for the shoddy workmanship done on the levees. However, we are not idle, innocent bystanders in all of this.
Let's start with Fact #1 on the levees.org Factsheet: "The flooding of New Orleans and nearby St. Bernard Parish was an engineering disaster, not a natural disaster." Yes, the structures were poorly constructed, but the levee and canal wall failures did not happen on a clear, sunny day. They were overwhelmed by hurricane storm surge -- a.k.a. a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina was a strong Category 3 storm as it passed New Orleans, true. We were led to believe that our flood protection structures should have withstood such a storm (or roughly, a 100 year storm), true. However, thanks to Katrina, we now know that the five-category Saffir-Simpson scale is an inadequate classification system. While New Orleans received Category 2 winds, perhaps stronger gusts, Katrina brought with her storm surge well beyond that even seen during Camille, the strongest Cat 5 we have ever seen in the U.S. with winds approaching 200 miles per hour.
Fact #2 on levees.org: "Responsibility for the design and construction of the flood protection in metro New Orleans belongs solely to the US Army Corps of Engineers..." Solely? Really? Then why the required public commenting wherein they are pressured to spare volleyball courts at the cost of weakening the better designed plans presented by the Corps? What about when people insisted on putting pumps even further south of the lake (i.e., in City Park) when it is clearly in our best interests to block lake surge from intruding that far into the city?
How are WE at fault? We must shoulder part of the blame because many people here keep failing to acknowledge two key facts of life: 1) we have always been and will continue to be vulnerable to the destruction wrought by hurricanes; and 2) man can never, and I mean NEVER, guarantee that anything he builds can withstand whatever Mother Nature may send our way. Yet, just this summer the news featured coverage of people relying on updated flood maps, which are already outdated by the way, to decide whether or not to raise their homes. Let's review. Many people whose homes flooded had no flood insurance before Katrina not because they couldn't afford it but because based on the presence of a flood protection system federal maps zoned their homes as being outside of a 100 year floodplain (i.e., insurance guy told you you don't need flood insurance). OK, fine, many people didn't really understand the statistics behind 100- and 500-year storms and the variables involved, but you should now. However, many people understood back then that their neighborhoods existed only because the levee system was extended to incorporate that area of the city. Levees.org even acknowledges this fact:
("...the water table was drastically lowered by the city’s drainage system and some areas settled several feet due to the consolidation of the underlying organic soils. After 1965, the US Army Corps built a system around a much larger geographic footprint that included previous marshland and swamp.")In the weeks after the storm, I remember pissed off residents blaming "the feds" who told us we were safe behind levees. Yet here we are, going right back to where we started, with the City Council (not the Corps) not approving flood maps because doing so would require people to elevate their homes several feet...Unless they wait a couple years for the levee system to be rebuilt and the next round of flood maps putting them outside 100-year floodplains once again so they can build their houses at or very near ground level.
For some, particularly in neighborhoods such as Lakeview, the maps show their risk has abated and if the city would adopt the FEMA maps, huge savings on flood-insurance premiums would follow. But those residents will have to wait. The City Council didn't want to adopt the maps and force others in areas where flood risk has increased, like the Lower 9th Ward and parts of Gentilly, to elevate now when adequate protection should be in place in a couple of years. (T-P, 6-18-09)
Levees.org FAQ: Haven't N.O. residents known for years that this could happen? "No, because the Corps assured the city’s residents that they were safe from a Standard Project Hurricane (roughly equivalent to a Cat 3 Storm). New Orleans residents did not know that the flood walls could rupture 4 feet below design specs or that the floodwalls were designed to collapse if water briefly overtopped them."
[The initial post incorrectly cited IPET as the reference document from which the following info was drawn. It was actually drawn from the ILIT report. Associated hyperlinks have also been corrected.]
Our collective sin is our repeated failure to learn from the sins of our fathers and from our own disaster ridden history. The Independent Levee Investigation Team (ILIT) issued a report on July 31, 2006, did a very good job of retelling this history as part of a nearly 700-page report on the failure of our flood protection system:
Floods Inundating "Backatown" via Lake Pontchartrain
(the following lifted directly from the ILIT report [except for my commentary in brackets; bold emphases are mine]
Hurricanes strike the Louisiana Coast with a mean frequency of two every three years (Kolb and Saucier, 1982). Since 1759, 172 hurricanes have struck southern Louisiana (Shallat, 2000). Of these, 38 have caused flooding in New Orleans, usually via Lake Pontchartrain. Some of the more notable events have included: 1812, 1831, 1860, 1893, 1915, 1940, 1947, 1965, 1969, and 2005. [ILIT report, pp. 4-9 to 4-11]
- "The Great Louisiana Hurricane" of August 9, 1812. It rolled over the barrier islands and drowned Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes and the area around Barataria Bay [pay attention too, Westbankers] under 15 feet of water. The parade ground at Fort St. Phillip was inundated by 8 feet of water and the shoreline along Lake Pontchartrain was similarly inundated, though this was far enough below the French Quarter to spare any flooding of the City.
- In June 1821 easterly winds surged off Lake Pontchartrain and pushed up Bayou St. John, flooding fishing villages and spilling into North Rampart Street until the winds abated and allowed the water to drain back into the lake. It was an ominous portent of things to come.
- On August 16, 1831 "The Great Barbados Hurricane" careened across the Caribbean, striking the Louisiana coast west of New Orleans. The area south of town was again inundated by storm surge, while a three foot surge entered the city from Lake Pontchartrain.
- Southeastern Louisiana suffered through three hurricanes during the summer and fall of 1860. On August 8th a fast moving hurricane swept 20 feet of water into Plaquemines Parish. The third hurricane struck on October 2nd making landfall west of New Orleans. It inundated Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and Barataria, causing a significant storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain which destroyed 20 lakeside settlements, washing out a portion of the New Orleans and Jackson Great Northern Railroad. Surge from this storm overtopped the banks along the Old and New Basin drainage canals and a levee along Bayou St. John gave way, allowing the onrushing water to flood a broad area extending across the back side of New Orleans.
- In 1871 three hurricanes caused localized flooding, which proved difficult to drain. Flooding emanating from storm surges on Lake Pontchartrain during these storms overtopped the Hagen Avenue drainage canal between Bayou St. John and New Basin Canal [present day Lafitte Avenue] spilling flood waters into the Mid-City area. City Engineer W. H. Bell warned the city officials about the potential dangers posed by the drainage canals leading to Lake Pontchartrain, because the Mid-City area lay slightly below sea level.
- The record hurricane of October 2, 1893 passed south of New Orleans and generated winds of 100 mph and a storm surge of 13 feet, which drowned more than 2,000 people in Jefferson Parish, completely destroying the settlements on the barrier island of Cheniere Caminada. This represented the greatest loss of life ascribable to any natural disaster in the United States up until that time.
- In August 1900, a hurricane passed directly over Galveston, TX, demolishing that city and killing between 6,000 and 8,000 people, which remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history. Prior to impacting Galveston, that hurricane tracked westerly parallel to the Gulf Coast about 150 miles south of New Orleans. Its flood surges were noted along the Gulf Coast, including Lake Pontchartrain's south shore (Cline, 1926) [sounds kinda like Rita and Ike, don't it? We're vulnerable even if a storm just passes south of us on the way to Texas! Still hard for me to wrap my mind around this phenomenon.]
- Prior to Katrina's landfall in 2005, the most damaging hurricane to impact New Orleans was the Grand Isle Hurricane of September 29, 1915, a Category 4 event which produced winds as great as 140 miles per hour at Grand Isle. It slowed as it made landfall and eventually passed over Audubon Park, seriously damaging structures across New Orleans. Electrical power was knocked out, preventing the City's new pumps from functioning [sound familiar?]. The wave crest height on Lake Pontchartrain rose to 13 ft, easily overtopping 6-foot high shoreline levee, destroying the lakefront villages of Bucktown (at the end of 17th Street Canal), West End, Spanish Fort, and Lakeview (these lakeside settlements were swallowed up by the infilling of the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline in 1928-31). The drainage canals were also overtopped, flooding the city behind Claiborne, leaving Mid-City and Canal Street under several feet of water. This storm overwhelmed the City's defenses so quickly that 275 people were killed, mostly in the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline zone.
- On September 19, 1947 an unnamed hurricane made landfall near the Chandeleur Islands [remember those?]A storm surge of 9.8ft reached Shell Beach on Lake Borgne. The runways at Moisant Airport were covered by 2 ft of water while Jefferson Parish was flooded to depths of 3+ ft. Sewage from an overwhelmed S&WB treatment plant stagnated in some of the drainage canals, producing sulfuric acid fumes that caused staining of lead-based paint on some of the homes in the Lakeview area, leaving them with unsightly black blotches [I've never heard this before]. 51 people drowned and New Orleans suffered more than $100 million in damages. City officials were unable to clear floodwaters through the drainage canals in the Lakeview, Gentilly, and Metairie neighborhoods for nearly two weeks. [hmm, I have this strange feeling of deja vu, like this has happened before]. This was the first significant hurricane to strike New Orleans which generated a large body of reliable storm surge data, which was subsequently used in design of flood protection works by the Corps of Engineers. The New Orleans Times-Picayune prepared a map that showed reported depths and locations of flooding in the 1947 hurricane.
A couple more important nuggets of history which some of us seem hellbent on repeating:
[In the 1870s!] New Orleans City Surveyor W.H. Bell warned of the potential dangers posed by the big outfall drainage canals. He told city officials to place pumping stations on the lakeshore, otherwise “heavy storms would result in water backup within the canals, culminating in overflow into the city.” This prophetic warning was ignored with catastrophic results during Hurricane Katrina. (p. 4-16)
By the time the Corps got involved [between 1955 & 1960], a dense network of single family residences abutted the drainage canals along their entire courses (the canals are 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 miles long). The encroachment of these homes adjacent to the canal embankments circumvented any possibility of using conventional methods to heighten the levees, which is usually accomplished by adding compacted earth on the land-side of the levees (Figure 4.23, which would require the condemnation and removal of hundreds of residences, which would be costly and time-consuming (not to mention unprecedented). (p. 4-22)
As far as I'm concerned, the previous point merits the most reflection. The feds and Corps did not build our homes right alongside outfall drainage canals. Those drained marshland pioneers may not have comprehended fully the implication of building their homes where they did. But now, we do. And we have to really think about what it means, not just to us personally but to the rest of the citizens who will be flooded from a breach of the floodwall in our backyards, when we object to the Corps appropriating 6 feet of our backyards to widen levee foundations or secure them from tree roots and whatnots that compromise the levees. WE are the ones with the power to tell the Corps how much land we are willing to cede to protect this great City, just like WE were the ones who limited the scope of the first round of levees which failed so catastrophically -- under the force of the Category 5 storm surge of a naturally occurring hurricane.
Let the hate mail begin!!