Levees - Our Blunder

There's no lack of analysis about the hurricane and there's some blaming and responsibility shirking too. But when we finish our lengthy digestion of the news will we return to wringing hands about our faltering technical capabilities based on the number of Ph.D.'s graduating in US? Will we rhapsodize on about the newest technology and daydream about its potential to vanquish human catastrophe? No doubt, but even as we do, its clear that our technical prowess as-is often overwhelms our social wherewithall to employ it wisely.

Look across the ocean to the Netherlands. In 1953 there was a tidal surge from the North Sea that overwhelmed the sea dikes - or levees. Bart Schultz, adviser to the Dutch Ministry of Transportation, Public Works and Water Management spoke to NPR yesterday about the safety of the Dutch dikes. These dikes protect a third of the country's population and he quickly pointed out that while the hurricane system in New Orleans were built to withstand an event that may happen 1:100 years, the Dutch hurricane systems are built to withstand a storm that may occur 1:10,000 years. Clearly the risks are different in the two places but when he was asked about the enormous economic costs of the measures Holland has taken and the cost of his technical solutions he practically scoffed: "[that] is peanuts compared to the damage you have now".

The Dutch knew, but we did not? Bush asserted yesterday that no one knew of the dangers:

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will."

His statement gives us pause; is our predictive technology that rudimentary? No, we know better, our technology is top notch. But did decades of loud clamoring for levee repairs go unheard? No, we heard the warnings. Are we then left to question the acuity our leader? "Not anticipated", "could not have predicted": The responses are business as usual.

Everyone has forecasted failures in the levees. A restrictive news search of one database using the terms "storm", "levee", and "New Orleans", yields almost 200 articles in the past 20 years, in "local" papers as well as papers in Toronto, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, etc...The National Geographic, Science...the list goes on.

The current hurricane protection systems were authorized by Congress in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy killed 81 people in southeastern Louisiana. All of these publications predicted the potential demise of the old levees, many made out of clay. The levees have been repaired and improved but never to the extent necessary. Many knew that they wouldn't stand up to even a moderate storm. In 1993 Robert C. Bracamontes Jr., director of emergency preparedness for one parish noted that they might withstand at most; "a fast-moving category 3 like Betsy, but we'd be in trouble with anything above that."

The receding marshes excacerbated the danger. The New York Times reported on April 30, 2002 that Jack C. Caldwell, head of the state's Natural Resources Department said:

"...it has been difficult to find enough money to build up the protective marshlands. Washington has been disinclined to earmark billions to protect the marshland and has resisted appeals from Baton Rouge to share revenues from offshore oil production with the state for that purpose.

New Orleans has squeaked through potential catastrophes for years. There was a time when the city routinely recieved more of a pounding from storms. From 1909 to 1926, three major hurricanes and two storms that hit south Louisiana, according to the Times-Picayune. Recently, year after year, storm after storm just missed New Orleans. The storms had caused significant damage, evacuations and fear, and had served as ample warning to the dangers.

  • Hurricane Danny caused $17 million to $23 million in damage when it struck on Aug. 15, 1985.
  • Hurricane Elena caused $2.6 million in damage over Labor Day the same year.
  • Tropical Storm Juan in October of 1985 caused significant strain in the levees in suburbs of New Orleans where 50,000 homes were flooded, several oil rigs were lost and there was $110 billion dollars in damage. (Times-Picayune- Oct 31, 1985)
  • Hurricane Andrew in August 1992 prompted the mayor to evacuate the city. Officials then blocked exit routes (which are notoriously insufficient) because they didn't want people to be on the highway when the storm hit.
  • Tropical Storm Erin swept across Florida into the Gulf of Mexico in June of 1993 and threatened to become a hurricane.
  • Hurricane Georges in September 1998 prompted hundreds of thousand of people to evacuate and tens of thousands more to collect at the city's nine shelters including the Superdome. Georges turned out to be a Category 2 storm that only "grazed New Orleans, [but] had pushed waves to within a foot of the top of the levees" according to the Times-Picayune.

As the storms fortuitously changed path or lost force at the last minute to spare the city, the city continued to push its luck. But it was mere luck and the Times-Picayune as well as national and international papers warned repeatedly that someday thousands of people could die. One study predicted ominously that up to 60% of the citizens wouldn't heed a hurricane warning. It was a growing concern that the population had become nonchalant, too willing to gamble, insouciant, a storm like Hurricane Betsy was ancient history -- 30 years ago.

Holland's Shultz indicated that the Army Corp of Engineers knew full well what the dangers were and how long it would take to fix the levees once they were breached. Indeed the corps provided regular reminders about the dangers - Terrel Broussard, a corps senior project manager warned in 1993:

"People have to realize that flood protection is not necessarily flood prevention," said "People have to realize that these levees are not everything for every storm."

While the threat grew, rancorous politics got in the way of action and the appropriate repairs were stalled. Politicians failed to dispatch adequate funds, the bayou eroded further, the levees sank, and the danger grew. But as the city failed to rebuild, insurance options of all sorts were withdrawn. In June of 2002, the Times-Picayune headlined that "Insurance Companies are Pulling Out..." and the New York Times reported:

"The American Red Cross is taking the threat seriously. It has declared it no longer will provide hurricane shelters in the New Orleans area, saying that placing staff there in a killer storm will represent too much risk for its employees, volunteers and the general public." (April 30, 2002)

The collective dithering postponed repairs and as result the city and taxpayers are exposed to even higher disaster costs.

The catastrophe has familiar earmarks. We continue to shrug off our environmental threats with a *there's always tommorrow* attitude, and fail to secure those things that are most valuable to us. We're optimistic to a fault and fatally sanguine. Large scale flooding is something that China, Thailand, Vietnam and Bangladesh deal with. We assure ourselves that we're so savvy and technically capable and that we live in such a well-honed civil society. We're aptly horrified when when looters crack into stores to load up shopping carts of sneakers and towels. But we blithely loot our environmental resources and use tax dollars capriciously - our horror is so selective. We have adapted an inverted sense of thrift and environmental sensitivity. Perhaps Katrina will help us shed or at least shed light on these tendencies before the next storm.

[Update: In the September 16, 2005 issue of Science, authors Martin Enserink and John Bohannon write in "Questioning the 'Dutch Solution'", that the Dutch technology for keeping the waters at bay has some drawbacks. Aside from the cost of dikes and storm gates, one argument is that the dikes don't allow natural sedimentation to occur so engineers and low lying area denizens get caught in a cycle of needing to build ever-higher walls to accomodated the sinking land. An alternative to this, proposes one fanciful critic, is to "embrace the water", by building "floating cities" or hills underneath buildings. Another engineer calls such an idea "'romantic'". While the title turns out to be the most provocative part of this article and the alternatives presented seem controversial at best, the considerations will no doubt be important to rebuilding New Orleans.

In the end, most people agree that the ideal, where people don't live in disaster prone areas is not feasible. Economic considerations govern that people live in hazardous areas, and with our prevailing political priorities cost benefit analyses will continue to dictate that hazards cannot be controlled to the extent technology allows.]

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