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Four Years Post-Katrina

That we even call this the post-Katrina era in New Orleans is somewhat misleading. Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans, but it missed the Crescent City. What we experienced was the worst civil engineering disaster in the history of our country. Floodwalls failed without being overtopped. The Army Corps of Engineers has said our flood control infrastructure was a system “in name only” and acknowledged a serious design flaw that led to the failures that flooded the city. The Army Corps should know, since they are the ones who designed and built and maintained the non-system in the first place. So: not a natural disaster but a man-made one.

This is a point that is pretty well understood around here, and by many around the country who have been paying close attention. But the majority of Americans probably still think of the flooding of New Orleans as a natural disaster.

Does it really matter, either way? Isn’t it still a tragedy either way? That’s kind of how I feel about it. But some folks with more political savvy than I seem to think it does matter.

I saw Harry Shearer speak at Rising Tide IV. He made the case quite eloquently that we have already lost the media battle on this point. In our national discourse, the flooding of New Orleans was a natural disaster, not a failure of engineering infrastructure.

When people from other places in the country ask why they should care what happened, Harry answers: “Because you paid to destroy us.” It’s your tax dollars at work. And now that the Army Corps is supposed to build a better flood control system — scratch that, an actual system — wouldn’t you like to see it done right? Again, it’s your money.

For an example of how it might be done better, check out the Dutch Dialogues. When the Dutch came to New Orleans, a city surrounded by water, their first question was, “Where is the water and why is it hidden?” The dialogues between Dutch and Louisiana engineers and hydrologists have generated some remarkable ideas about how New Orleans can live more safely with water.

But these ideas are a far cry from what the Army Corps is actually doing. A lot of people think the fundamental governance model of the Army Corps is flawed, and that without reform we won’t get better results. That’s a tall order, but I suppose people like Harry Shearer have it right when they say it’s important people understand what actually happened here four years ago.

P.S. For some fascinating insight into how Washington relates to our troubles “down here,” read Harry’s blog on “Playing the Inside Game,” an interesting story which he related at Rising Tide a couple days before publishing on HuffPo.

Published inKatrina


  1. Anne Anne

    Thanks for posting the link to the Dutch Dialogues. I meant to look them up. When I was working at the City’s Emergency Operations Center right after the storm, one of the things that really upset me was the local Homeland Security folks’ total indifference to, and outright rudeness to, several delegations from Holland, Japan, and Germany, all of whom had flown down here on their own dime in a great hurry to help. Instead, they were treated very badly and pawned off on secretaries and the like. Those guys knew SO about water control and had tons of experience. One of the secrets that was carefully kept out of the media was that it was largely German engineers, with portable pumps flown in with them, who got a lot of the lake water out of the city. With very little thanks from our officials.

    I watched a documentary on the Dutch water control systems after that, and I was very impressed. After a very bad flood, the Dutch said, “Never again!” and meant it, unlike our presidents’ promises. They started an ambitious water control project which is still in operation today. Amazing stuff.

  2. rickngentilly rickngentilly

    “Floodwalls failed without being overtopped.”

    i was under the impression that the flood walls on the london canal in my neighborhood were over topped but should not have failed.

    the reason they failed was because they were not deep enough and their footing was an i wall instead of a t wall.

    i would feel bad if i am misrepresenting this in my sermons to others.

    even thou it’s all the same thing, a man made disaster i want to have my facts straight.

    thanks for any input you have on this , rick.

    p.s. good luck on your abode upgrade.

    p.p.s. ever think about the option of renting your first house untill it becomes a better market for sellers?

    take care and happy back to school.

  3. Jack Schick Jack Schick

    We have a similar-if opposite-trip in “fast growing” new Mexico.
    The developers are in control of the political and courts process–
    endless “growth”… housing tracts with only eight feet of clearance between
    so-called “homes”, and guess what? There is no guarantee of WATER, and
    there have been cases where a fire truck raced to the new crackerbox
    neighborhood, showed off their great training, hooked up to the “hydrant”,
    and found no water pressure at all….
    They are pretending to actually PLAN for any Future in the design and
    sales of these properties.
    They are still pushing what ought to be a Dead Model–the Commuter
    bedroom community with no LIFE near your peasant-slave “HOME”.
    THEY-they-they (yes, they are real people):
    just wanna lure homebuyers…not even finishing the legally required
    infrastructure. They get the money and RUN.
    There is a harsh future in store.
    You do not even need write your name to qualify for welfare.
    They have people living on plots which have no natural desirability.
    When–I say WHEN, and Not IF, the water supply is Cut OFF, there is
    no alternative, and nobody anticipating the crisis. We are setting up
    massive death-by-thirst, concentrating people in spaces
    only because it is a flat place near a highway.
    I hope you-all will anticipate that you are asking for continued trouble
    to even live BY the Sea, and lots More trouble living UNDER the prevailing
    Sea Level. As happened before, Authorities will Cover their own Asses,
    run and leave folks to drown, thirst and starve to death, and you may
    know that this is actually written policy for the FEMA-camp “SECURITY”.
    They are TRAINED that we are potential threats, insurgents, militants,
    because we may express something intelligent in the face of the 18-year-old
    military-security idiot who is denying you access by curfew. They will
    rule our streets, by extreme design of the evillest men in the world.

    And how dare you think YOU should have CUSTODY of your Child?
    Elitist White-Supremacist, You?? I hope you’ve been watching.
    You are Now subject to the New Social and
    Economic Justice rules, and your child Will be raised By “The Village” of
    the Youth-and-Families Division. OOPs!! the lunch-rations in Lagos
    were a little short today, so YOUR child, in a Fair-and-Balanced decision,
    will not EAT today, and we appreciate your participation in this JUSTICE
    Please, you guys, don’t be relying on any system or organization for the
    survival of your child. They REALLY Don’t care about you.

  4. Ann Marie Ann Marie

    Can you tell me a little about your experience with ACORN? When did you apply for lead testing/abatement and when did you receive services? Did it seem on the up and up to you? I applied to have the testing done in August 2008, didn’t get the test until Jan. 09, was found to have lead, and then told the grant money ran out. It seems fishy to me.

  5. Rick: Everything I’ve been able to read suggests the London Avenue Canal was *not* overtopped. That’s what they thought at first, but later the verdict was changed.

  6. Jack Schick Jack Schick

    Levees Blown
    Say Eyewitnesses –
    Media Ignores Them

    Eye Witnesses Living Near 17th St. Levee
    Say Loud Explosion Heard Just Prior
    To Raging Waters Flooding The 9th Ward

    By Greg Szymanski

  7. Jack Schick Jack Schick

    There is a whole lotta stuff for you to read, many links,
    much info at this website,
    here’s a sample:
    (Quoting website):
    Another conservative Republican may have found what caused the New Orleans flooding a few hours AFTER Katrina passed. Investigative journalist Hal Turner reported that a US Army Corps of Engineers diver found explosive residue on concrete from a collapsed levee. The diver sent a sample to a Army lab where it was identified as a Navy explosive used for underwater blasting. FEMA told the diver to mind his own business.

    Seems there are good witnesses to corroborate the demolition at the 17th. Street Canal and the Industrial Canal. On this Corps map note the 17th. Street Canal and the Industrial Canal:
    …….(maps and photos and more)…..
    (I didn’t want to slam your blog with all this juicy stuff, so please go see it
    if you have the energy to face the EVIL. Most folks practice avoidance from
    painful things.
    There’s a lot of 9/11 links there, roll on down if not interested.
    I hope you’re Clear on the complete falsehood of our Official Story on 9/11.

  8. Garvey Garvey

    Ok, I know you’ll think I’m asking this to be a jerk, but I guarantee I am not.

    A long time ago, the powers-that-be (/Army Corps) decided that they would turn the Mississippi into a quick chute and keep it from moving its banks as rivers are wont to do. Realizing that this would then create flooding problems, esp. for a city below sea level, levees and seawalls and so forth had to be built (problem exacerbated by loss of wetlands, which they didn’t know at the time, way back when?).

    Is this correct so far?

    Anyway, when an actual natural disaster came and proved this levee system insufficient, why does this cease to be a natural disaster at all and is solely a Corps disaster? Does the storm itself bear no culpability whatsoever?

    If the levees had never been built, would the flooding been worse, better, or the same?

    Again, I’m not being rhetorical, just trying to understand the perspective of “this is PURELY a man-made disaster.” Want to get where you’re coming from.

  9. Garv: The levee system does have those problems with regard to the river. However, after Katrina, it was not these levees that caused a problem. Rather it was the high water in Lake Pontchartrain backing up into outfall canals designed to drain rainwater out of low-lying areas. The walls on these drainage canals failed because of a design flaw which the Corps had discovered in the 1980s, I believe. Anyway, more directly to your last question, if these drainage canals had not been built I suspect these low-lying areas would never have been settled, and they wouldn’t have flooded either, but that’s my guess. In other words, it really was very muchly a manmade disaster. It must be admitted that the Corps isn’t the only player to blame, but they are the ones that matter at this stage.

  10. jim jim

    b is correct about the corps’ knowing the levees were screwed way back in the 80’s.

    how many cities in the us are on rivers? if rivers are wont to wander, should every river city be at risk of having its geography radically changed?

    also, new orleans’ being “below sea level” is a bit of a misnomer. most of the city is above sea level, though a minority of it is below sea level. all port cities are near sea level.

    some of the most devastating katrina damage (ie, nola east and the lower ninth ward) was caused by the storm surge being rammed up the mississippi river gulf outlet (mr. go), a canal created during wwii to protect shipping from german subs.

  11. Garvey Garvey

    Thanks for the quick-and-dirty explanations. Much appreciated. But the storm itself bears 0% of the blame?

    “If rivers are wont to wander, should every river city be at risk of having its geography radically changed?”

    Lots of people would say yes. Then nature decides the winners and losers, instead the Corps. And the long term implications of the Corp deciding is that everyone becomes losers in the end. The loss of the wetlands/delta is a prime example. Everglades, too.

  12. jim jim

    two thoughts about garvey’s perspective

    the nature-take-its-course perspective is intellectually consistent. however i think it fails to appreciate how these decisions were made. back in the day, the choice wasn’t keep the mississippi where it is or let it run down the atchafalaya. the choice was prevent minor, periodic flooding or leave things alone. not surprisingly, they chose the former.

    but at this point, it’s clear our society has completely rejected the nature-take-its-course perspective, as has much of the civilized world. given that then, what we can’t have is such management performed in a half-baked manner.

  13. The question of whether the storm bears *any* blame for the flooding misses the point, I think. It’s of course true that Katrina’s surge caused the high water, without which the flooding probably wouldn’t have happened, at least not on that particular day. But the fact remains that the design flaw would probably have led to the failure of those floodwalls on the outfall canals eventually. It was, as I understand it, an catastrophe waiting to happen.

    I’m all for Radical Wetlands Restoration. However I also have to note that a friend of mine who is a civil engineer thinks the protective power of coastal restoration may be overrated.

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