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"Breaks in the Levee Logic


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"Breaks in the Levee Logic

By Duane D. Freese

"The news and opinion spin cycle is moving faster than the winds of a category 4 hurricane. Barely have we had the opportunity to feel denial about the terrible tragedy, feel sympathy for victims and begin lending our support than we've leapt to the stage of recrimination: Who's to blame?


And the rush to judgment is running ahead of appropriate investigation and facts.


Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, raised the question "Did the New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen?" He quoted Louisiana officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the New Orleans area in old Tiimes-Picayune's stories complaining about cuts by the Bush administration in federal funding for levees and flood protection, particularly ACE's Alfred Naomi, stating in June 2004:

"The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don't get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can't stay ahead of the settlement.  The problem that we have isn't that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we can't raise them."


The New York Times, in its lead editorial Thursday titled "Waiting for a Leader," churlishly went after President Bush for his first speech which it called terrible. It went on to pretend it knew what New Orleans' problem was -- a lack of federal funding. Specifically it called for the House to restore $70 million in funds for the levees next year.


The Washington Post, in an editorial that talked about not casting blame now, nonetheless couldn't resist casting some, saying the "president's most recent budgets have actually proposed reducing funding for flood prevention in the New Orleans area, and the administration has long ignored Louisiana politicians' request for more help in protecting their fragile coast."


USA Today did a better job in a pair of edits -- one on the disaster response and one on the energy supply -- by recognizing that the state and local government had a roll in building Louisiana's infrastructure. On energy, it even went so far as to say some things some anti-oil groups hate to hear -- how obstructionists to development of new refineries, offshore and Alaskan energy supplies share the blame for the nation's reliance on Gulf Coast supplies.


But it, too, got caught up in the drumbeat about the levees, arguing:  "[P]eople living along the Gulf Coast have grown up hearing about what could happen if the 'big one' hit the region. Yet the levees weren't raised or strengthened sufficiently to prevent flooding. Initial plans for evacuating the city and ensuring civil order were haphazard at best."


Indeed, if editorial writers had a comment to make it was to say something about the levees.


And why not? The levees broke, didn't they? That's what helped mess up the rescue effort, didn't it? And there were cuts in federal help, weren't there?


The answers to all these questions are yes. But, the fact is, they miss an important point, which The New York Times editorialists might have discovered had they read their own news storyby Andrew Revkin and Christopher Drew. The reporters quoted Shea Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans, about how surprising it was that the break in the levee was "a section that was just upgraded."

  "It did not have an earthen levee," he told them. "It had a vertical concrete wall several feet thick."


Worse for the editorial writers were statements by the chief engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen Carl Strock: "I don't see that the level of funding was really a contributing factor in this case. Had this project been fully complete, it is my opinion that based on the intensity of this storm that the flooding of the business district and the French Quarter would have still taken place."


The reason: the funding would only have completed an upgrade of the levees to a protect against a level 3 hurricane. Katrina was a level 4 plus.


And the reasons for this goes back decades.


Since the 1930s, when levee building began in earnest, Louisiana has lost a million acres of its coastal wetlands, and faces the loss of another 640,000 additional acres -- an area the size of Rhode Island -- by 2050.


A new study based on satellite measurement released in May found that the wetlands area was sinking at a half-inch to two-inches a year as of 1995, or up to more than a 1.5 feet a decade.


"If subsidence continues and/or sea level rises and human action fails to take place, the entire coast will be inundated," Roy Dokka of the Louisiana Spatial Reference Center at Louisiana State University and an author of the study noted in July.


And he went on in a Times-Picayune piece that columnist Bunch apparently failed to examine:


"The current plans to save the coast are focused on fixing wetlands, which is incredibly important, but the problem is that subsidence is affecting the entire coast. We need to combine those plans with regional hurricane levees and sand shoals. We have to find some way to protect the people and valuable infrastructure we have on the coast."


This echoes a point that was raised by the White House Office of Management and Budget in a review of the Corps of Engineers levee and flood work back in 2003. It noted that while the Corps managed projects that reduced flood damage to specific areas, annual flood damages to the nation were increasing. As such, it wanted the Corps -- though well-managed -- to broaden its approach by coordinating with federal flood mitigation efforts -- to be "more pro-active in preventing flood risks rather than reacting to them."


The regional Corps head so often quoted by the media himself said in 2003 that a project to protect the city from a category 4 or 5 storm would take 30 years to complete, with the feasibility study alone costing $8 million and taking six years to complete. At the time he opined, "Hopefully we won't have a major storm before then."


As for the $14 billion plan called Coastal 2050 for wetlands restoration that Louisiana politicians have been pushing for the last two years for the federal government to provide a stream of funds -- up to 65% of the cost -- some experts say it was only a stop-gap.

"We are not going to stop marsh loss. Subsidence is too dominant," James Coleman, a professor of coastal studies at Louisiana State University, told the Times Picayune a few years ago. Coastal restoration "is a temporary fix in terms of geological time. You will see results of massive coastal restorations in our lifetime, but in the long run they are also going to go."

Indeed, those interested in getting a taste of the complexity of New Orleans situation, a good place to start is to read "The Creeping Storm" by Greg Brouer in the June 2003 Civil Engineering Magazine:

"During the past 40 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent hundreds of millions of dollars constructing a barrier around the low-lying city of New Orleans to protect it from hurricanes. But is the system high enough? And can any defense ultimately protect a city that is perpetually sinking -- in some areas at a rate of half an inch (editor's note: Or up to 2 inches) per year?"

We know the answer to the first question now -- obviously not. The answer to the second question will require more investigation. It would be nice if some editorial writers would perform a little more. Snap judgments in this situation are worse than no judgment at all."


Entry #55


JAP69Comment by JAP69 - September 2, 2005, 3:56 pm
With the devastation that has taken place in New Orleans from the hurricane and now fires breaking out I would suggest to the ones with ideas to rebuild New Orleans.
Do not rebuild on the site of which we know as New Orleans Now.
Rebuild The industrial complexes on high ground. Rebuild new infrastructure and housing on high ground.
The money will be better spent doing so.
konaneComment by konane - September 2, 2005, 4:29 pm
Could not agree with you more. Given the swill of sewage, chemicals, etc., in flood waters I personally don't see how any sort of cleaning could be accomplished to a satisfactory level as part of building reclamation. Also read in another article that barrier islands are dependent upon flooding which is prevented by the levee system are eroding away making New Orleans more vulnerable to storm surges in the future. Rebuild a greater city on higher ground!
Comment by Rip Snorter - September 2, 2005, 5:12 pm
Seems to me trying to rebuild New Orleans will add insult to injury to the taxpayers of this nation who would have to fund it.

I agree with most of what you've said and quoted here. However, it's important to note that, on the one hand, it was a certainty there'd be:

1) A CAT 5 storm someday hitting LA, (this one only came in as a CAT 4, downgraded as it came in)
2) levy failure when and if that storm came in,
3) Severe property damage behind those levies in the event of 1, and 2.

However, the State of Louisiana, New Orleans and the surrounding communities continued building in those areas that would be flooded with absolute certainty.

This isn't a Corps of Engineers problem. It isn't a Prez Bush problem, nor even a Fed budget problem. It is a problem belonging specifically to the voters, residents and politicians of all levels of government in Louisiana. They've been making the decisions about where to do their building with full knowledge of the dangers. It the people of Louisiana were ignorant of these facts, they had a responsibility to educate themselves.

Which, of course, they did. And they decided to take the risk.

When we gamble and lose, if we can make people feel sorry enough for us we can sometimes get help. Louisiana's getting help. There shouldn't be any grounds for complaint by them, nor for any Monday morning quarterbacking by anyone.

This is a sad affair, one that's going to be awfully difficult to overcome. But at the end of the day it's a Louisiana problem. If Louisiana wants to rebuild New Orleans it needs to be done with Louisiana taxpayer money.

konaneComment by konane - September 2, 2005, 6:07 pm
Rip "If Louisiana wants to rebuild New Orleans it needs to be done with Louisiana taxpayer money."

Indeed it should. Found this commentary "New York Times "The Gulf Coast has always been vulnerable to coastal storms, but over the years people have made things worse, particularly in Louisiana, where Hurricane Katrina struck yesterday. Since the 18th century, when French colonial administrators required land claimants to establish ownership by building levees along bayous, streams and rivers, people have been trying to dominate the region's landscape and the forces of its nature.

Coastal Defenses Are Disapearing

As long as people could control floods, they could do business. But, as people learned too late, the landscape of South Louisiana depends on floods: it is made of loose Mississippi River silt, and the ground subsides as this silt consolidates. Only regular floods of muddy water can replenish the sediment and keep the landscape above water. But flood control projects channel the river's nourishing sediment to the end of the birdfoot delta and out into the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico.
Although early travelers realized the irrationality of building a port on shifting mud in an area regularly ravaged by storms and disease, the opportunities to make money overrode all objections.

When most transport was by water, people would of course settle along the Mississippi River, and of course they would build a port city near its mouth. In the 20th century, when oil and gas fields were developed in the gulf, of course people added petrochemical refineries and factories to the river mix, convenient to both drillers and shippers. To protect it all, they built an elaborate system of levees, dams, spillways and other installations.

As one 19th-century traveler put it, according to Ari Kelman, an environmental historian at the University of California, Davis, "New Orleans is surprising evidence of what men will endure, when cheered by the hopes of an ever-flowing tide of dollars and cents."

In the last few decades, more and more people have realized what a terrible bargain the region made when it embraced - unwittingly, perhaps - environmental degradation in exchange for economic gains.

Abby Sallenger, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey who has studied the Louisiana landscape for years, sees the results of this bargain when he makes his regular flights over the Gulf Coast or goes by boat to one of the string of sandy barrier islands that line the state's coast.

The islands are the region's first line of defense against hurricane waves and storm surges. Marshes, which can normally absorb storm water, are its second.

But, starved of sediment, the islands have shrunk significantly in recent decades. And though the rate of the marshes' loss has slowed somewhat, they are still disappearing, "almost changing before your eyes," as Dr. Sallenger put it in a telephone interview from his office in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Grassland turns into open water, ponds turn into lakes."

Without the fine sediment that nourishes marshes and the coarser sediment that feeds eroding barrier islands, "the entire delta region is sinking," he said. In effect, he said, it is suffering a rise in sea level of about a centimeter - about a third of an inch - a year, 10 times the average rate globally.

"Some of the future projections of sea level rise elsewhere in the country due to global warming would approach what we presently see in Louisiana," Dr. Sallenger said.

Hurricane Katrina was a strong storm, Category 4, when it came ashore east of New Orleans, near a string of barriers called the Chandeleur Islands. "They were already vulnerable, extremely so," Dr. Sallenger said.

He said he and his colleagues were reviewing photos, radar images and other measurements made of the islands after Hurricane Lili, a Category 2 hurricane that passed over them in 2002.

"The degree of change in that storm was extreme," he said. "So we had a discussion this morning: O.K., if Lili can do this, who knows what Katrina is going to do?" The scientists expect to fly over the coast on Wednesday and find out.

Of course, New Orleans is vulnerable to flooding from the Mississippi River as well as from coastal storms. North of the city, the Army Corps of Engineers has marked out several places where the levees would be deliberately breached in the event of a potentially disastrous river flood threat, sending water instead into uninhabited "spillways."

But there is no way to stop a hurricane storm surge from thundering over a degraded landscape - except, perhaps, by restoring the landscape to let the Mississippi flow over it more often." http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/30/national/30coast.html?ex=1283054400&en=898df19e4a00e68f&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

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