While it will be easy to argue mismanagement of state and federal funds, political corruption, moral turpitude, or ineptness on a gargantuan scale, such accusations cannot expose the underlying circumstances that allowed a powerful hurricane to overwhelm a system designed to withstand its winds and waves. Without the floods, there would have been considerable wind damage, but not the long-term evacuation of at least half the city’s pre-storm population and extensive water damage over nearly 80 percent of the city’s territory.
Inundation and displacement are key reasons restoration is not farther along. While the media probe for the reasons, the landscape before them tells the story. With its population dispersed and such extensive damage, the city and individual property owners have been able to make only modest progress. Indeed, FEMA’s key advisory about the post-hurricane floodplain came only in April – and it is only advisory. Many other actions hinged on this guideline. State programs, such as the Road Home funding to help home owners salvage equity from their damaged property only cleared the legislature in July. Provision of electricity and water is still spotty, thereby inhibiting the return to certain neighborhoods. Robert Kates and others, including myself, have compared the New Orleans response with time lines from other disaster recoveries and found that at eleven months out, New Orleans is more or less on pace.
Perhaps the more telling question is what were the historical circumstances that allowed a powerful hurricane, but one arguably within the design range of the levees, to overwhelm a massive and expensive hurricane protection system? I may not be able to provide a complete account, but I have been scouring through historical records for much of the last eleven months to unearth the critical decisions, social conflicts, and funding issues that shaped the levees that surrounded New Orleans and its suburbs last summer. Several aspects of the hurricane protection history stand in sharp contrast to reporting from a year ago, and one can anticipate similar discontinuities between popular accounts and historical events as we pass the storm’s anniversary.
Many of us from this part of the world received an email that circulated last fall. It contained a series of photographs that depicted the massive flood protection works in the Netherlands and those near the mouths of the Thames as gleaming sophisticated public works. It also had pictures of the failed levees along the canals in New Orleans. The basic question posed was, why couldn’t we envision and build comparable devices to protect a major city. Few in the media explored the initial plan for hurricane protection proposed on the eve of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and approved by Congress within weeks of that storm. This plan, know as the “barrier plan,” would have included levees along the peninsula that nearly separates Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico. At each of the two openings, the Corps of Engineers planned to install massive gates that they could close when a hurricane threatened to push water from the gulf into the lake. By preventing the build up of water in the lake, engineers predicted, the gates would reduce the flood threat to properties behind levees that were also part of the plan. In the face of local opposition to the barrier plan, the Corps argued vigorously to retain these gates in the plan. Following a court order in 1978, that called for a more complete environmental impact statement and put construction of the gates on hold, the Corps dropped the barrier plan. In its place, the federal engineers adopted the “high level” plan in 1984 – which called for higher levees.
Some editorial writers and bloggers who did uncover the shift from the barrier to high level plan gleefully harangued “environmentalists” for causing the city’s destruction by forcing the shift in the protection plan. These writers incorrectly presumed it was only environmentalists who opposed the barrier plan and doomed the city to a watery fate. Environmental organizations were among those who took vigorous steps to force the Corps to reconsider, but they were not alone. Residents on the north shore of Lake Pontchartain feared that the levees and gates across the eastern end of the lake would divert storm surge into their parish and drown Slidell and neighboring rural areas. They also expressed concern that the gates would limit the development of ship building and oil fabrication operations on the north shore. Political leaders and business interests jointly resisted the plan. By no means was the opposition limited to environmentalists. They were joined by commercial fishermen who challenged the barrier on the grounds that it would damage their livelihoods by altering the habitat of the marine life they caught from the lake. In addition, major shipping interests effectively vetoed the addition of a third barrier in the much maligned Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. They feared it would interfere with the movement of ocean-going ships into and out of the Port of New Orleans.
There were countless other historical conflicts between federal, local, and state authorities as the Corps planned and constructed the massive system that was unable to resist Hurricane Katrina. Huge delays due to demands by local business interests were common. One of the longest delays followed objections by West Bank business and government officials to the Corps’ proposed levee alignment in 1972. In a land where levees and drainage works define the development footprint, local interests desired the Corps to push their levees farther from the river and into the backswamps. The more land that the levees encircled, the larger the parish tax base. When the Corps did not satisfy development proponents with revised alignments in 1979, the parish voted to take over the levee building task itself. After it completed an environmental impact statement in 1984, the Corps rejected its application to destroy wetlands. Eventually, the parish turned the task back over to the Corps after delaying the process for five years. Hurricane Juan in 1985 produced minor flooding on the West Bank and highlighted the costs of conflict and procrastination.
Other factors also disrupted the completion of the hurricane protection project. Threatened and real budget cuts accompanied each conservative administration in Washington. In addition, the environmental circumstances where the levees rose presented unrivaled challenges. Lacking bedrock or even firm soil, construction took extraordinary lengths of time. As the engineers devised means to deal with a difficult setting, they had to conduct trial runs – which took years to evaluate in some cases. In 1976 and again in 1982 the federal government critiqued the Corps for falling behind its original 1978 projected completion schedule and allowing the budget to balloon. On the eve of Katrina, the projected completion date for the 1965-approved hurricane protection system was 2015. Even without having to deal with the scale of destruction produced by the 2005 storms, the Betsy-prompted protection system had become a half-century task.
As the media converge on New Orleans for the Katrina anniversary, some will ask why much of the city is still uninhabited and why provision of basic city services is fragmentary. I would ask them to look at the pace of other urban restorations after major storms. When considering the scale of the disaster and the extent of the damage. The uncertainty of flood insurance requirements, funding from state and federal programs, and the great dispersal of the city’s population have significantly hindered restoration. While there is ample opportunity for corruption and ineptitude to interfere with progress, one must not forget the scale of the calamity and the protracted response after Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
While a political culture of conflict and corruption will affect the city’s future, the ongoing response to Katrina is mired in a landscape bound together by complex historical factors that are as powerful and pervasive as the personalities at work in that landscape today.
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