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.

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