hard question about the big easy

Byline: | Category: Uncategorized | Posted at: Wednesday, 31 August 2005

The first part of this article is eerily prescient about what happened to New Orleans because of Katrina.  (And, lest we forget, had the storm not lost 30 mph of its wind speed in the last 24 hours before landfall, and had the storm veered a mere 30 miles west of where it landed, New Orleans would be in even worse shape–if that’s imaginable.)

Discount the second part of this article, as it is about a science fiction wave prediction device that (even if it did exist at the time of the storm) wouldn’t have been useful.  It is Popular Mechanics, so they needed a gadget to talk about.

But this article highlights an important problem–New Orleans’ highest point is only six feet above sea level.  And that problem raises a real question.  It’s a question that doesn’t need to be resolved now, and in fact, shouldn’t probably be considered now.  But just to get it out there for future discussion:

Should New Orleans be rebuilt at all?

UPDATE:  W’s comment to this thread deserves posting up front:

I’m a civil engineer by trade, and I specialize in flood control and drainage.  When Katrina hit New Orleans I went back into my technical library and found an article discussing this very scenario published in Civil Engineering magazine in June of 2003.  I’m not really familiar with the situation in NO, but the info below is from that article.

The really scarey thing…. we’ve known this could happen for years.  Ever since Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans back in 1965 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been studying and building flood control for the city.  They feel the city is adequately protected from flooding on the Mississippi River, but they’ve always known storm surge from a hurricane could basically make the city part of Lake Pontchatrain. 

They’ve been building levees and interior drainage that was predicted to be complete around 2018.  But in 2003 they started to realize that the levees may not be high enough.  The hurricane modeling that has been done in the last few years has predicted that the levees as designed could possibley handle a fast moving class 3 hurricane.  The predictions for class 4 and 5 storms was terrible.

NO has so many drainage problems it makes my head hurt.  Not only is the city at or below sea level, it’s also getting lower.  All of coastal Louisianna is sinking and the marshes between NO and the Gulf are eroding, which continuously brings the city closer to the Gulf.  The National Geodetic Survey is a nationwide system of survey control points with location and elevation data that is resurveyed every 10 years.  The ground subsidance in coastsal LA is so bad they consider the survey markers in the area obsolete.  Some of them dropped as much as 2 ft between when the article was published in 2003 and the last survey (which I believe was around 2000).

So basically we have the city which over a billion has been spent to protect, and is sinking into the ground.  You could easily make the argument that NO should be abandoned now that it has been smashed, but it’s also very important as a port town.  It serves an awful lot of barge traffic up the Mississippi and loads a lot of goods onto trucks for moving into the interior parts of the country.

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9 Responses to “hard question about the big easy”

  1. Brad Says:

    I don’t think it is even a consideration to rebuild it (in the same place). The government needs to find another location where they can rebuild the affected people. If you rebuild in place it will cost many times more to do and it will just be a matter of time before it happens again.

  2. Barry Says:

    What would you call it? New New Orleans?

  3. S-townMike Says:

    Perhaps we should not rebuild the Mississippi Gulf Coast either, since it seems prone to sea surge to a point 1 to 4 miles inland. No old mansions in Gulfport or Long Beach. No casinos in Biloxi. No wharfs, no boardwalks, and no beach houses.

    Seems only fair if you propose moving New Orleans.

  4. W Says:

    I’m a civil engineer by trade, and I specialize in flood control and drainage. When Katrina hit New Orleans I went back into my technical library and found an article discussing this very scenario published in Civil Engineering magazine in June of 2003. I’m not really familiar with the situation in NO, but the info below is from that article.

    The really scarey thing…. we’ve known this could happen for years. Ever since Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans back in 1965 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been studying and building flood control for the city. They feel the city is adequately protected from flooding on the Mississippi River, but they’ve always known storm surge from a hurricane could basically make the city part of Lake Pontchatrain.

    They’ve been building levees and interior drainage that was predicted to be complete around 2018. But in 2003 they started to realize that the levees may not be high enough. The hurricane modeling that has been done in the last few years has predicted that the levees as designed could possibley handle a fast moving class 3 hurricane. The predictions for class 4 and 5 storms was terrible.

    NO has so many drainage problems it makes my head hurt. Not only is the city at or below sea level, it’s also getting lower. All of coastal Louisianna is sinking and the marshes between NO and the Gulf are eroding, which continuously brings the city closer to the Gulf. The National Geodetic Survey is a nationwide system of survey control points with location and elevation data that is resurveyed every 10 years. The ground subsidance in coastsal LA is so bad they consider the survey markers in the area obsolete. Some of them dropped as much as 2 ft between when the article was published in 2003 and the last survey (which I believe was around 2000).

    So basically we have the city which over a billion has been spent to protect, and is sinking into the ground. You could easily make the argument that NO should be abandoned now that it has been smashed, but it’s also very important as a port town. It serves an awful lot of barge traffic up the Mississippi and loads a lot of goods onto trucks for moving into the interior parts of the country.

  5. Bill Hobbs Says:

    There really are multiple parts to the question.

    Should the people of New Orleans, if they chose, rebuild in the same location? Sure. It’s a free country.

    Should the rest of the country finance it with incredible outlays of tax dollars? Probably not.

    There’s probably a sensible middle ground – let the people of NO rebuild what they chose to rebuild of their own private property, using their own money, use tax dollars to rebuild certain key infrastructure such as the ports and roads, allow low-interest loans to the city to build better levees, but create incentives for most people NOT to rebuild their residential properties in low-lying areas of the city. (Essentially, buy the land under the destroyed neighborhoods, clear the debris, create large urban parks, and encourage the former residents to move to high ground in the ‘burbs.)

    That said, the human thing to do is to rebuild and try again to live in a fundamentally inhospitable place. It’s the same urge that sends us to the moon, and to Antarctica.

    We humans are just kinda nuts that way – and we usually are pretty good at making ways to live in unlivable places.

  6. W Says:

    It also bears pointing out, I think this is the first time since 1965 they’ve had widespread damage like this. It’s not like the rich folk who build beach houses over hanging the ocean. Then use taxpayer subsidized flood insurance to rebuild every two years when a good storm blows down the house.

  7. hellbent Says:

    There is a massive, expensive facility upstream of New Orleans and Baton Rouge called Old River Control. It diverts 30% of the Mississippi River’s flow into the Atchafalaya Basin and keeps the rest in the main channel. The thing is, the Army Corps of Engineers built Old River Control because the Atchafalaya was going to capture the entire flow of the Mississippi, leaving Baton Rouge and New Orleans and a dozen smaller cities without a river.

    Not only are we maintaining a huge, expensive system of levees to protect New Orleans from flooding, we are also spending billions to keep the Mississippi River from obeying the law of gravity. Our interference with the natural dynamics of the delta has exacerbated the sinking of the delta and dried up swamps that act as natural buffers against storm surge. In other words, we have a complex and badly designed system in place, and many of the compromises and poor choices were made to protect the economy of New Orleans. Other poor choices were made because at the time we lacked the knowledge and computing power we now have.

    This disaster is an opportunity to fix a lot of those problems if we can muster the political will to do something more thoughtful than just rebuild the precarious system that was there. We also have a huge population of displaced people that no one knows what to do with. The recovery effort is not going to be funded mainly by insurance claims; it will be federal tax dollars and charity that pay for most of it, whether ideologues like it or not.

    We can put the displaced to work redesigning the flood control system and building themselves a new city near Lafayette, where the Mississippi wants her mouth to be. We don’t need to abandon New Orleans entirely, but let’s rebuild it as a smaller city with a cultural economy and move the river economy somewhere better.

  8. Porkopolis Says:

    I’m maintaining a blog list of responsible bloggers asking the tough questions regarding the rebuilding of New Orleans at Discussions on alternatives to rebuilding New Orleans.

    I’ve added your post to the list.

    Please point any like minded bloggers that would like to be added to the list over my way at:

    http://porkopolis.blogspot.com/2005/08/discussions-on-alternatives-to.html

    Part of what has to be done is contact Senators and Congressman to let them know there’s another way to help those in need.

    Porkopolis

  9. db Says:

    Here’s a link to the article referenced above by commenter W in the June 2003 issue of Civil Engineering Magazine: “The Creeping Storm”.
    http://www.pubs.asce.org/ceonline/ceonline03/0603feat.html

    Also check out this article from Scientific Amrican: “Drowning New Orleans” (October, 2001).
    http://www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=00060286-CB58-1315-8B5883414B7F0000