Thursday, September 01, 2005

Dirty Little Secret - A Rant and Commentary

The full scope of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina is still unknown, but it looks like at least hundreds of dead, damages in the tens of billions of dollars, and maybe over a hundred thousand homeless refugees. Here is an article from the Washington Post which I believe presents an accurate picture of how grim things look. As is usually the case, the poor and working class who live from paycheck to paycheck will fare the worst. This is a tragedy of unimaginable dimensions, and worthy of our help through the Red Cross and the many other relief agencies.

But this tragedy is not completely an “act of God.” The disaster in New Orleans has a large man-made component. This event has been predicted for years, and it was just a matter a matter of time before it happened. No one seems to have had a plan as to how to deal with this situation.

Following a devastating flood that inundated major parts of the east coast, the Flood Control Act of 1936 was passed which gave the Corps of Engineers the mission to provide flood protection for the entire country. As a result of this and subsequent bills, the Corps constructed flood control projects around the country.

Early in my career, I worked as a hydraulic engineer for the Corps of Engineers doing hydraulic and hydrologic analyses and planning studies for various flood control projects including dams, levees, flood walls, and pump stations.

By the late 80’s, when I’d had my fill of working on endless flood control studies for projects with marginal cost/benefit ratios, which would and should never be built, I began working in Corps’ flood plain management program. It was there that I came to truly understand the dirty little secret about dams, levees, flood walls, pump stations and other structural flood control projects. Not only do these structural measures result in the destruction of nature’s own very effective flood control systems – wetlands, natural floodways, meandering channels, seasonally flooded areas, etc. – but they give people an entirely false sense of security and actually encourage them to live in and expand development in flood hazard areas. The Corps actively promoted that false sense of security – I believe they may no longer do so, although since I haven’t worked for the Corps since 1991, I don’t know what their policies are today.

I started working for the Corps a couple of years after Hurricane Agnes – a huge storm in 1972 which caused record-breaking and catastrophic flooding and resulted in billions of dollars of damage in Pennsylvania and New York. The Corps liked to use a particular photograph taken in one town that was just barely spared from flooding by Agnes. This town had a floodwall, which the residents hated. It was a tall, ugly, plain concrete wall that cut off views of the river. The residents didn’t want the wall in the first place. But then Agnes hit, the waters rose just about to the top of the wall, and the town stayed dry. When the danger of flooding had passed, someone spray painted “We Love You Wall” – a photo op almost as good as a big old “Mission Accomplished” banner! The perfect PR photo to convince residents of some other flood-endangered town that they’ll be glad when they have a big old ugly concrete floodwall to call their own!

If it had rained just a little harder or a little longer, the floodwall or levees upstream would have been overtopped, and the town would have been devastated. “Thanks for Nothing, Wall!” Next time, they might not be so lucky.

Turns out, New Orleans wasn’t so lucky this time. Parts of New Orleans are 6 feet below sea level, or more, and the city is surrounded by a system of levees and pump stations to keep the water out. If either the pumps or levees fail the city will fill up with water. This time, not only did at least one major pump station fail very early during the storm, but the levees failed too. (At this moment, with the power out and apparently insufficient emergency generators, none of the pump stations are operating, and the Corps is still trying to repair the levee breaks.)

Also contributing to the disaster was the loss of lands in the Mississippi delta – including vital wetlands, which might have reduced the storm surge from the Gulf. This link from LSU includes some maps showing how the delta has been disappearing over the years. The amount of land lost from 1973 to 2000 is particularly alarming. If the erosion and loss of wetlands keeps up at the same rate (and let’s not forget about global warming and the inevitable rise in sea level), it won’t be long before New Orleans is perched right on the shore (or to be more accurate, below the shore) of the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize what would happen when another big storm hits beachfront New Orleans.

People are resilient and they will recover from this disaster. The Corps will repair the levees and the water will be pumped out of the city. The people will feel safe once again and go on with their lives. But rather than rebuild in a less flood prone area, many will rebuild their homes and businesses right where they were before, 6 feet below sea level. Unless the recovery program also includes a major effort to restore wetlands, to recover delta lands lost over the years, and to keep development out of areas which would continue to face severe flood hazards in the event of a levee failure, New Orleans will one day again be faced with the same kind of disaster we are witnessing today.

Note: I’m not totally blaming the Corps of Engineers for this disaster. The Corps, in fact, knew that the systems protecting New Orleans needed to be upgraded and they requested funding to do so. Unfortunately, that funding was cut by Congress and the current Administration. FEMA, under the Department of Homeland Security apparently did no planning, or pre-positioning of personnel, equipment, or supplies, even though it was clear that a major disaster was imminent. And don’t even get me started on the National Guard, who should be available in significant numbers to help out in the case of national emergencies such as this, but many National Guard troops happen to be tied up in Iraq.


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