January 13, 2006

Rethinking the Levees

Rethinking the Levees

As Chris wrote in his post game analysis for our recent Rebuilding New Orleans show:

The public story is shockingly simple and stark after that conversation: good people and a great American city are being villainized and severely punished for the gross negligence of the U.S. government… Mr. Bush: rebuild those levees, starting tomorrow.

It followed a show in which each of our guests — a reporter-turned-blogger, a pastor, and a barber — argued personally and pasionately that a robust levee system is the first and most important pre-condition for rebuilding. Important enough, in fact, that few individuals (let alone businesses or insurance companies) will even consider coming back without some kind of guarantee that everything won’t be wiped out by the next big storm. But what kind of guarantee? And how big a storm?

In some ways, diagnosing what happened in the past (the “gross negligence of the U.S. government”) is the easy part — easier than navigating the present, at least — and there’s no shortage of people on the case of the breached levees. The American Society of Civil Engineers is looking into it. So is the Army Corps of Civil Engineers. And a National Science Foundation-financed group. Even the Lousiana Attorney General is joining the investigation party. Most of these inquiries won’t be releasing official reports for a while, but the initial reports that have dribbled out tell a story of negligence that’s about as gross as it gets. From design to construction to maintenance, the auditing engineers have been appalled.

So what comes next? The Bush administration has promised about $3 billion: enough, it announced, for a levee system that will be “better, much better, and stronger than it ever has been in the history of New Orleans” — and strong enough to actually withstand a Category 3 hurricane. But that’s not enough for some New Orleanians, who are demanding Category 5 hurricane protection, a potentially limitless engineering project that could cost upwards of $30 billion. Is that kind of protection, against a massive but extremely unlikely hurricane, too much to ask for? And who, or what, would bridge that $27 billion gap?

We’ll need to start to answer many of these questions soon: hurricane season is only five and a half months away.

Related Content

  • mcasemo

    A fair share of the offshore gas and oil royalties would help bridge this gap. LA’s senators, congressmen, and governors have been asking for this for years, only to be denied over and over. This industry, exploration, etc. are a big contributor to the dying wetlands.

    From the Times Picayune, 06-12-05 “The channels cut through Louisiana marshes to allow companies to reach the rich deposits below the ocean floor weakened the fragile marshes and allowed salt water to eat away at them”.

    From The Advocate (Baton Rouge), 07/20/05 article: “The Bush administration has balked before at giving Louisiana the money it needs to fix the coast. Last year the White House told Louisiana officials to downsize their coastal-restoration plan from a $14 billion, 30-year project to a $1.9 billion, 10-year one.”

    From the AP, 12-21-05: “Offshore oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico is the federal government’s second largest source of revenue. Coastal states receive only a fraction of the billions the federal government gets from the offshore leases and activities each year while interior states get half of the royalties from drilling on their land.

    Louisiana officials want coastal states to receive a 50 percent share of the offshore production dollars — and they say that’s only fair to states that provide most of the nation’s energy resources and infrastructure.

    “We provide a great benefit to this nation. All we’re asking for is a fair shake,” said Plaquemines Parish President Benny Rousselle.”


  • mcasemo

    As for the question of are Cat 5 levees too much to ask for, certainly not. A home should feel safe, ours no longer do. “Extremely unlikely� hurricanes are no longer in our vocabulary. Overreaction to the situation is what is needed in this case. Over 75% of the residents homes have experienced something along the lines of this: http://timsnamelessblog.blogspot.com/2006/01/journey-through-time.html

    Would you feel the need for a little overprotection? Hurricane season is FOUR and a half months away, and I don’t think we’ve solved that global warming thing.

  • keepmoving

    I don’t know if this is has been aired or not, but I’d like to know who is going to monitor the money. New Orleans was given an enormous sum of money to set up a communications systems and wasted it. Who’s keeping an eye on the chickens in the foxes house!

  • Geographer

    I want to change how we handle FEMA funding of disaster relief. Instead of paying citizens to rebuild repeatedly in the same dangerous areas, I want to encourage relocation in all cases, not just the current one. Since New Orleans is not intended to be the home of mermaids, it would move onto solid ground, and would not need levees or pumping stations. A new national park, similar to the Everglades, would be created on the old swampy site, possibly extending all the way along the Gulf Coast.

    Other examples of changes in FEMA procedures would include flood plain easements along the Mississippi and other rivers, where farming could occur but

    housing would not; and sunseting buildings built across earthquake faults (the-25,000 seat U.C. Berkeley stadium, across the Hayward Fault is one such


    A new Homestead Act would enable even the poorest of survivors to own their new homes free and clear. Funding could come from reductions in the Department

    of Defense.

  • mcasemo

    I think “Why Not New Orleans” by Roger Wilson from the Gambit Weekly is an appropriate read for this discussion.


  • avecfrites

    Let’s also keep in mind the wider implications of any decision on the New Orleans levees. In the coming years we’ll see major weather incidents more and more, in other places. Does it become the policy of the US to rebuild all damaged cities and towns to their former conditions? To an improved condition? Or do we respond in each case by deleting the hardest-to-salvage neighborhoods?

  • tbrucia

    If one had to pick a place to build a city, the present location of New Orleans has little to recommend it. Unfortunately, the best location for a Mississippi River seaport is already occupied. (It’s called Baton Rouge). If America chooses to rebuild New Orleans on a subsiding delta, on a site mostly below sea level, it will be a recurring project. Each time a major hurricane destroys this vulnerable city, it will be rebuilt as an ever-smaller ‘city’. I suppose that if Americans want to throw their money down a rathole, periodically rebuilding New Orleans might be ok — but what about the poor folks who repeatedly lose their homes and livelihoods? A good example of a major seaport that ‘sort of recovered’ from a major hurricane lies just a few hundred miles west of New Orleans: Galveston, Texas. After the 1900 hurricane, this major port city ‘sort of’ recovered — but basically lost out to Houston, 50 miles inland and less exposed. Today, Galveston is a pretty town (population: 57,000) which supports itself on tourism. Maybe Galveston is New Orleans future — which means look to Baton Rouge for economic growth and a ‘rebuilt’ N.O. as a ‘tourist’ trap.

  • mcasemo

    New Orleans was a man-made disaster, failure of levees. New Orleans experienced Cat 1 or 2 winds. New Orleans is protected from a direct hurricane hit, although this protection is failing (eroding coast). Adequate levees and funding of a coastal restoration program saves New Orleans.

    The comments here suggest Houston would only be partially rebuilt (or moved to Dallas) if Rita had taken a more westerly route. Johnson Space Center would likely be in a hard to salvage neighborhood. 50 billion to repair Houston, would we try? http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/3046592.html

    Miami & every FL coast city, too dangerous. San Francisco, & LA, too shaky. Sacramento, floods. Chicago, has a tendency to burn. East Coast? Hurricanes hit there too. Tsunamis’, tornados…

  • If you want to support rebuilding the New Orleans Levees, sign the petition at http://www.savebigeasy.org and pass the word to your friends!

    The United States cannot afford to lose a city as valuable as New Orleans. If New Orleans Levees are not rebuilt properly, then the long-term effects will be disastrous for American culture and the U.S. economy.

  • doogieh

    Don’t know if you’ve already talked about John McPhee’s great bit of background on the Levee system in the lower Mississippi basin in the essay “Atchafalaya” from the New Yorker and later from his book The Control of Nature.

    The New Yorker has re-released the original essay on its web site from the archives at newyorker.com. Its worth a read to put New Orleans and the history of water control on the lower Mississippi in historical perspective, and on the long term inevitability of levee failure.

  • moosenik

    If you believe the evidence for global warming and sea level and hurricane increase, it’s simply not cost effective to attempt to replicate the mistakes of French imperialists, who had no understanding of ecology. If you believe the world was created 6000 years ago, building a city below sea level is as arrogant as the Babel tower builders.I agree with Geographer and tbrucia, New Orleans should be relocated , and it and other coastal cities should direct future growth towards sustainable altitudes.

  • stimp

    @moosenik, building below sea-level is not a problem. (Iam living almost my entire life below sea level.) You just have to build and maintain a proper water defense.

    If you dont you will be giving alot of city’s back to nature with the climat change coming.

    The U.S.A. should start to think about the enviroment and what position it will take. Will it try to ignore it or learn to live with it. Luckily oil prices are rising forcing the U.S.A. to rethink their energy policy.

  • avecfrites

    The show can also lend insights into the question of what would we do if a US city was rendered uninhabitable by dirty bombs, pollution, etc. How do you relocate that many people? What support do you offer? Do the people become the new Okies fleeing the dustbowl with no government support?

  • TekTok

    The thing about the ongoing crisis that is affecting New Orleans is how preventable it was. It was common knowledge prior to last years storms that the levee system was highly likely to fail even under moderate hurricane conditions. A modest investment, as compared to the relief and rebuilding costs, could have prevented the tragedy that devestated the region and its people. Foresight, planning and a budget committment a fraction of what is being spent on relief and reconstruction could have saved lives and the property of thousands.

  • Potter

    This is my idea: Start an SUV buyback program. Take the SUV’s and crush them into tight bricks say 4 feet by two feet by two feet. (Years ago I saw a John Chamberlain sculpture that was essentially that. I think it was at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC) Here is one by Cesar Baldaccini compression automobile or .

    Then we ship all these “bricks” down to New Orleans to rebuild the levees.

    This takes care of two problems at once.

  • Potter

    Sorry. Here is the link to Compression Automobile

  • Potter

    For some reason those links do not work. Once last time:


  • mjb

    A category 5 hurricane is defined as “winds greater than 155 mph” and a “storm surge generally greater than 18 ft above normal.” (Emphasis added.)

    If the upper limit of a Category 5 storm is not defined, is there such a thing as Category 5 protection?

  • Something occurred to me the other day.

    I was listening to PRI’s To The Point and Jim Ball, the Executive Director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, was mentioning the link between global warming, hurricanes, weak levees and the suffering of the poorest and weakest members of society.

    The way he framed this made me think that the notion of weak and broken levees is the perfect metaphor for this time of market deregulation, global trade and investment, the general freer flow of capital and greater social dislocation and poverty.

    Like the levees in New Orleans, our social networks and institutions (including government, when not bought off by industry and special interest groups) are, in the end, the only things that can protect us from what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter referred to as the creative destructive force of capitalism. And like the levees in New Orleans, these are either weakened or broken and we are now flooded in the ever rising sewage of raw market interactions. The deluge has entered our homes, our homepages, our schools, our sports and community grounds, our churches, and our democracies.

    It is not as if we have never faced the torrential rains set upon us by the gods of money. Indeed, these storms bent our backs to the task of building the social levees in the first place. But now the huge reservoirs of capital have been undammed by the hurricane force of profiteering and greed and the levees no longer hold. And we either drown, are forced to swim in the murky waters of the market or reach out for a finger-hold on the last few island of hope, such as open-source public radio. Will the sand-bags hold?

  • Global poverty increasing?

    Fighting Global Poverty

    Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A24

    THE UNITED NATIONS has a history of proclaiming utopian goals, and the U.N. report delivered Monday under the leadership of Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs could be viewed as part of this pattern. It is subtitled “A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals.” But many of these goals, adopted at a summit of heads of state in 2000, are themselves not practicable, despite significant recent progress. Between 1990 and 2002, the number of people in extreme poverty declined by 130 million; child mortality rates fell from 88 to 70 deaths per 1,000 live births; an additional 14 percent of the developing world’s people acquired access to sanitation. But the U.N. goals include reducing the child mortality rate by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015 and halving the proportion of people without access to sanitation. This is unrealistic, and the United Nations should stop setting itself up for failure.


  • skfranz

    I know this is probably a far, far too simplistic view of the situation, but aren’t there really big mounds of debris that really need a place to settle? How about raising the 9th Ward above sea level? Of course, I live in Boston, where putting three expressways in tunnels underneath existing skyscrapers and the harbor was thought to be “doable.” 🙂

  • metolius8

    Fixing the levee system to ‘pre-katrina’ standards when the impact of global warming is fact not myth is like having a finger in the dyke…It’s not a fix, it’s a very expensive bandaide.

    Now I like and want to see the lives and cultural of NO restored and maintined as much as anyone…but its likely to be less than a 20 yr payback….maybe much shorter.

  • serious lee

    No one has brought this up yet but what happened to new orleans was an ACT OF GOD. New orleans was and is a very sinful place. Just like Saddom and Gamorrah in the Bible and you know what happened to those places. I think that if they rebuild the levies and not reform this sinful place i.e. Mardi Gras, all this will only happen again.

  • serious lee, is your comment for real? Or are you just laying on the sarcasm by spinning out what the neo-Christians and born-agains are saying?

  • serious lee

    A little of both sidewalker

  • Now I am even more confused, though that not unusual. Do you mind providing further explanation serious lee?

  • avecfrites

    We’re now just a couple of months away from the start of the next hurricane season, and my intermittent reading in the press tells me that we haven’t fixed the levees. If another big storm hits New Orleans and the streets all flood again, it is the end of the Bush administration.

  • bobbydoo

    The way things are shaping up recently, i think it’s already the nominal end of the Bush administration. But if you believe Kevin Phillips, the author of the book, “American Theocracy”, the majority of Born-Again Christian americans feel that Katrina and the Iraq war are portents of the coming apocalypse. Under that misconception, they see no reason to curb spending, and no reason to rebuild New Orleans…….

  • tbrucia

    Pudong — facing Shanghai — was farmland and countryside before 1990. Today this ‘new city’ has a population of 1.5 million people. Its airport is connected by a mag-lev train (finished 2004) with the subway system. It also is connected to Puxi by three bridges, the newest of which is the world’s longest arch bridge. — Maybe American incompetence should stand aside, and simply turn the reconstruction of New Orleans over to the Chinese. Their Pudong team has a track record. America has nothing.