Time Magazine Story Identifies What Really Destroyed New Orleans

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The most important thing to remember about the drowning of New Orleans is that it wasn't a natural disaster. It was a man-made disaster, created by lousy engineering, misplaced priorities and pork-barrel politics. Katrina was not the Category 5 killer the Big Easy had always feared; it was a Category 3 storm that missed New Orleans, where it was at worst a weak 2. The city's defenses should have withstood its surges, and if they had we never would have seen the squalor in the Superdome, the desperation on the rooftops, the shocking tableau of the Mardi Gras city underwater for weeks. We never would have heard the comment "Heckuva job, Brownie." The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was the scapegoat, but the real culprit was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which bungled the levees that formed the city's man-made defenses and ravaged the wetlands that once formed its natural defenses. Americans were outraged by the government's response, but they still haven't come to grips with the government's responsibility for the catastrophe.

They should. Two years after Katrina, the effort to protect coastal Louisiana from storms and restore its vanishing wetlands has become one of the biggest government extravaganzas since the moon mission--and the Army Corps is running the show, with more money and power than ever. Many of the same coastal scientists and engineers who sounded alarms about the vulnerability of New Orleans long before Katrina are warning that the Army Corps is poised to repeat its mistakes--and extend them along the entire Louisiana coast. If you liked Katrina, they say, you'll love what's coming next.

Before Katrina, the Corps was spending more in Louisiana than in any other state, but much of it was going to wasteful and destructive pork instead of protection for New Orleans; one Corps project actually intensified Katrina's surge. After Katrina, a series of investigations ripped the Corps for building flimsy floodwalls in soggy soils, based on wildly flawed analyses--and shoddy engineering was only one way the Corps betrayed New Orleans. But while FEMA director Michael Brown's resignation made front-page news, Corps commander Carl Strock's resignation hardly made the papers. By the time Strock admitted his agency's "catastrophic failure" eight months after the storm, the U.S. had moved on.

As the disaster's Aug. 29 anniversary approaches, there will be plenty of talk about the future of New Orleans---how to rebuild; bring home the diaspora; and deal with crises like housing, crime and education. But in the long run, recovery plans won't matter much if investors, insurers and homesick evacuees can't trust the Corps to prevent the city from drowning again. "Katrina wasn't even close to the Big One," says Louisiana State University (LSU) hurricane researcher Ivor van Heerden, author of the Katrina memoir The Storm. "We better start getting ready."

Today, Corps leaders are rebuilding New Orleans levees, but they say it will still take four more years and billions of dollars more just to protect the city from a 100-year storm, the protection they were required to provide before Katrina. That's still paltry compared with Amsterdam's 10,000-year-storm protection. But Corps officials have also committed to restoring the surge-softening marshes, cypress swamps and barrier islands that are disappearing at a rate of a football field nearly every half-hour. They say they now understand that the survival of New Orleans depends on a sustainable coast. "This is not the Corps of old," says Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of the agency's Task Force Hope. "The world has changed, and the Corps is changing too."

But for all the talk about restoring wetlands, almost every dime of the $7 billion the Corps has received since Katrina is going to traditional engineering: huge structures designed to control rather than preserve nature. And its latest plan seeks to extend those structures along the entire coast, calling for such massive levees across so much of the state that scientists call it the Great Wall of Louisiana. The Corps says it's just an idea, but Congress is about to authorize the first stretch of the wall--a $900 million, 72-mile (116 km) levee for isolated bayou towns like Chauvin, Dulac and Montegut. "Nothing has changed," says G. Edward Dickey, a former Corps chief of planning. "It's the same engineering mentality, except now they'll build the levees even bigger."

Bigger levees aren't all bad. New Orleans desperately needs them; one local slogan is, "Make Levees, Not War." But New Orleans needs its eroding wetlands just as desperately; another local slogan is, "Fix the Coast, or We Are Toast!" To prevent another disaster, the construction addicts of the Corps, their enablers in Congress and the U.S.'s cockamamie approach to water resources will all have to change. The Great Wall concept sounds a lot like the mistakes of the past.

KILLING THE COAST

NEW ORLEANS WASN'T ALWAYS A CITY IN A bowl. The French founded it in 1718 on high ground along the Mississippi, a "natural levee" of sediment deposited by the river. That's why tourists in the French Quarter stayed dry during Katrina. And that's how all of south Louisiana was built--by the Mississippi River mutinying its banks and rambling around its floodplain like an unruly teenager, dropping mud around its delta and creating roughly 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) of wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf. So while the French built an earthen levee 1 mile long and 3 ft. high (1.6 km long, 1 m high) to block the river's annual tantrums, they didn't bother trying to block the occasional hurricanes that swept up the Gulf. "They didn't need hurricane levees," says Kerry St. Pe, a marine biologist whose ancestors arrived in 1760. "They had wetlands to protect them." New Orleans wasn't on the coast, and hurricanes wilt over land.

Now the Gulf has advanced some 20 miles (32 km) inland, thanks in large part to the Army Corps. The Corps started as a Revolutionary War regiment, fortifying Bunker Hill, but it evolved into an all-purpose engineering unit, eventually overseeing local flood control on the Mississippi. The Corps ordered communities to imprison the river in a narrow channel with a strict "levees only" policy, rejecting calls to give the river room to spread out. So levees rose, and the Corps repeatedly declared the river floodproof. But the constrained river also rose, and its jailbreaks repeatedly proved the Corps wrong. In the epic flood of 1927, crevasses shredded the entire valley and nearly destroyed New Orleans.

Congress rewarded this failure by allowing the Corps to seize control of the entire river and its tributaries, an unprecedented Big Government project that foreshadowed the New Deal and established the Corps as the U.S.'s manipulator of water and manhandler of nature. It built dams, floodways, revetments and pumped-up levees throughout the Mississippi basin, caging the beast in its channel, safeguarding riverfront cities, creating a reliable web of liquid highways. But by walling off the river, trapping its sediments behind giant dams and armoring its erosive banks with concrete, the Corps inadvertently choked off the land-building process. The straitjacketed river now carries less than half its original sediment load down to Louisiana. So there's little new land-building material to offset the natural erosion of the coast, much less the unnatural rising of the sea fueled by global warming.

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thx
Posted by Leonard Lopp on 2007-08-10 13:14:21
thx time magazine for coming out with this groundbreaking news. C'mon, anyone with a brain knows this already. Seriously, thx for spelling it out to the lemmings in middle america though.
Posted by Anonymous on 2007-08-11 10:55:46
I believe these were originally built by the army corp of engineers, but since they were built have never been maintained, or updated It's been a long time since I have paid attention to this story, so I cannot named any sources off hand. Some where along the line, there was recommendations made to update and improve them.
however....
Posted by eyes open in N.O. on 2007-08-14 06:44:39
If the flood gates (now installed) recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers in the early '90s had been installed - instead of rejected by local politicians - there would have been no flooding.
Two hundred years ago coffins in New Orleans had holes drilled in them so they wouldn't "pop up" due to ground water.... the city is below sea level, along a hurricane prone coast.... rainwater has to be pumped to a higher elevation to keep the city from flooding.
I love this city - wouldn't live anywhere else - place dat blame where ya want-ta, but it's gonna flood again sha-baby, sure nuf dawlin'.
Goes with the territory - don't whine - it's so unbecoming, really.
 

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