Did New Orleans Have to Flood?

In looking at the reports from New Orleans, I really have to ask if the catastrophic flooding of the city was inevitable, or whether it resulted from poor planning. It seems to me that technology exists that would have prevented the massive flooding we are currently seeing. Why wasn’t this technology used?

First, there appears to have been little preparation for the rapid repair of the levees. Several technologies exist for creating or repairing dikes on the fly. For example, oil companies use a type of hollow cement barge that can be floated into place and then sunk. They use them to create islands in swampy areas on which to place drilling equipment. They can also be used to create or repair broken levees. Why wasn’t such equipment pre-positioned on Lake Pontchartrain on barges so that it could be rushed to the levee breaks? By comparison, dropping sand bags from helicopters seems rather ad hoc.

An even worse oversight, however, seems to be the pumps that must function even in ordinary circumstances in order to keep the city dry. New Orleans sits below all the surrounding water and has absolutely no natural drainage at all. Without the pumps, even normal rainfall will flood the city. Yet the pumps all seem to have worked off the regular electrical grid with little or no local backup power. Once Katrina and the flooding knocked the power grid offline, the pumps went down. Even after they repaired the levees, without the pumps the water will just sit inside the city. The pumping system should have had backup power. Probably the best system would have been to run them off natural gas and to have created storage tanks near the pumps in case the gas lines failed.

I think the people of New Orleans and Louisiana need to ask hard questions about the level of technological preparations. It looks to me that more aggressive planning could have prevented the worst of the flooding.

40 thoughts on “Did New Orleans Have to Flood?”

  1. I think Louisiana and New Orleans need to get in touch with the Dutch to see how to build a good dike and levy system. If you are insistent about living below sea level as a port city, you could do worse then getting tips from the Dutch on building a dike.

  2. I gather that you’re not familiar with just how corrupt politics in Louisiana is, and pretty much always has been. (Does the name “Huey Long” mean anything to you?)

    A lot of the reason why that stuff hasn’t happened is that it would require honest government, which wasn’t funneling away public funds on graft and patronage.

  3. Other people are thinking along similar lines.

    WRT to LA’s political culture, someone on some blog made the point that there was almost no looting in Iowa during the huge 1993 floods. If you do a thought experiment where you exchange the populations of IA and LA, it’s not difficult to imagine a much different post-hurricane outcome in LA. Culture matters a lot.

  4. Eric Anondson,

    The Dutch are certainly the planetary experts at living below sea level but the people living in the Mississippi river valley are no slouches. St Louis, for example, has steel levee that over a mile long.

    I suspect that we will find that SDB is correct and that dysfunctional Louisiana politics will prove to have played a major role. I think the technology exist to have saved the city from the worst of the flooding.

  5. Yup, I live in Minnesota. Very familiar with the Red River flooding (Grand Forks anyone?), very familiar with the 1993 Upper Mississippi flooding. St. Paul has a similar levy on both sides of the river that bisects it. Minneapolis doesn’t really worry about it because the river runs through a gorge through it.

    River flooding is different that sea (lake) dikes holding sea water at bay. River levies can be coordinated with nearby levies to diminish the flooding by letting it wash over the floodplain elsewhere… thereby reducing the height of the flood where a levy is built around a settlement. River flooding is likewise different in that eventually water will recede and as water will flow downhill.. it will wash out of town on its own mostly unaided.

    In fact the Upper Mississippi is going through a new assessment to eliminate more levies so as to create even more areas to ease future floods (and create wildlife refuges).

    The know-how to build dikes to hold back the sea (Lake Pontchartrain) takes different contingencies into consideration if a breach happens because there need to be different back-up reponses since the situation is so dire. Sea level is sea level. There is no further downhill for water to flow out of town when the flood season is over.

    Just some food for thought on why New Orleans ought to look beyond its conventional wisdom for the future. *shrug*

  6. I notice that when the Israelis decided to build a high wall to keep out a different kind of flood, that wall sprang into existence in a matter of a few months. Pretty impressive wall too. Seems to me that with two centuries to think about these things, NO could have built any kind of walls they wanted. That they didn’t says more about the people than about technology or weather.

  7. Actually, I suspect that New Orleans did have similar walls (and other preparations) in the past… the Wood Screw Pump, for instance, was invented in New Orleans and used worldwide for drainage projects. It is, or was, surrounded by massive levees.

    Not all the levee systems broke in Camille and Betsy, and the pump systems did function during that storm.

    Tom, I could take you to where my grandmother used to live and show you the view of the roof of the house from a nearby levee. They’re there, it’s just that, afaict, the levee board wasn’t maintaining them, and this was because of the machine politics of the city itself.

    I’m irked that you’ll be judging all Louisianians by the standard of New Orleans when most of us have no ability to control the corruption of the city government, any more than any of YOU can control the fact that Chicago’s become a hereditary fiefdom for the Daley family.

  8. Can anyone tell me why the levee system was not compartmentalized, so that instead of the whole city, only a smaller section would flood in a breach?

  9. Am I the only one wondering who built a major U.S. city in a bowl, below sea-level, in a hurricane alley? Why did we pick this fight with the Hurricane Gods?

    Louisiana’s planners need to re-examine the long-term viability of maintaining large human populations on a submersible river delta. Logic would dictate that we should be discouraging residential development in this cyclical swamp: fewer people mean a smaller public health concern, and a crisis averted.

    I’d hate to see national sentimentality for our beloved “French Quarter” wind up costing more lives, and many billions, later on. It’s entirely possible that the historic strategic forces that pushed the Big Easy’s development into that hurricane-prone hole, don’t exist anymore anyway. Maybe a new vision can now drive Louisiana’s plans for its delta counties.

  10. Steve,

    “Am I the only one wondering who built a major U.S. city in a bowl, below sea-level, in a hurricane alley?”

    The French.

    Seriously though, New Orleans exist, indeed must exist because trade requires a port at the mouth of the Mississippi. Like most things, the current precarious position of New Orleans evolved over the course of several centuries becoming a little worse each generation.

    The entire Mississippi river valley has dealt with these issues for nearly a century and the Dutch have been doing it even longer. As a matter of technology, the city could easily be safely maintained where it is.

    The fact that the technology wasn’t in place or wasn’t maintained is the fault of the political management. It is something the electorate will have to address when things have settled.

  11. I believe it was above sea level when it was first built.

    I remember reading in a Louisiana History textbook (that I unfortunately gave back many years ago) that the site was picked because it was thought to be less vulnerable to hurricanes than other possible sites. I don’t remember how that conclusion was reached, though… but it is interesting that the city went more than 300 years before a catastrophic hurricane arrived.

  12. My fathers family is from New Orleans. Everyone evacuated safely. They have lived there for four generations and know how to deal with storms. The difference between New Orleans and most other places is the Cresent City has water on three sides. From my understanding, the levees did not “break” the storm pushed water higher than it had ever been, which flowed over the top and broke them down. The corruption in New Orlean is legendary and doubless played some part in the fact that the levees were not built up. You would think every generation would add a foot or two to the height until the top was 10 feet above any recorded storm.

  13. There are lots of pretty important pumps in the US that have no backup power: for big-city water systems, and sewer systems, too. Not quite as critical as the pumps in New Orleans, but vital and still vulnerable to grid failures.

    It’s probably quite expensive to provide backup generators for these things (we’re talking locomotive-type horsepower or more) but why not run them mechanically from gas, steam, or combined-cycle turbines? I believe there are a fair number of steam-turbine-powered pumps in the UK…

  14. New Orleans was a few feet above ground a century and a half ago. What happened– why did it decline? Man intervened. The Mississippi River used to flood every couple of years and lay down six inches of loam. But that was inconvenient and messy, so they laid down levees which sent the flood out into the ocean. That meant that the coastline didn’t get replenished and it started to erode from wave action. It was just mud after all.

    Then they struck oil in the region and pumped it out without replacing it with mud, so that meant that the whole coast started to go below sea level. Building up the levees higher just meant that when they failed it would be catastrophic. No one would have built there if New Orleans been this prone to flooding. No one should rebuild there since this problem will not go away.

    The question is one of economics: does it make economic sense to rebuild? I think not. But the problem is that economics is not likely to be allowed to work. Yes, historic New Orleans should be rebuilt as a tourist trap, but it would be better if the rest of the city would be leveled or given to Lake Pontchartrain. Otherwise, people will rebuild and be flooded out again and again. The only reason I am qualified to speak of this is that my tax dollars will go to rebuild it.

  15. It used to be necessary to have a city there for purposes of trade. Trade goods came down the river on barge, raft, and on steam ships and was transhipped onto deep open sailing ships for export to other parts of the US and to Europe. Incoming goods were unloaded from sailing ships and transhipped to steamships to be taken into the heartland of the US.

    But it isn’t needed any longer. Deep ocean ships can navigate the Mississippi well upstream of there, and New Orleans isn’t a major port any longer.

    Besides which, with the majority of cargo in the US now moving by rail and truck, it doesn’t have to move to the mouth of a river; it just has to move to a port somewhere on the coast with a link to the rail system and/or the interstate highway system.

    There is no longer any significant economic incentive to have a city there, and in fact New Orleans has been suffering from capital flight (corporations and private individuals) for a long time. Up until recent events, by far the most important industry in New Orleans was tourism. Which is now pretty well dead. It’s not clear that without tourism a city in that location is economically viable any longer.

  16. Steven…I believe there is still a fair amount of grain traffic by barge on the river, and it is more efficient even than rail. But, the transfer point from barge to ship could still move further upriver with sufficient facilities investment (which may well be necessary anyhow at this point)

  17. This event seems likely to have numerous far-reaching effects that we do not yet foresee. NO was, among other things, a major port for our grain exports. Now a large part of that business is on hold. As an analysis that I read pointed out, the buyers of those grain shipments will quickly have to develop alternative sources of supply. In the short run this is bad for American agribusinesses, which will have difficulty shipping their grain, while it will be a boon for foreign producers. In the long run it means other countries, particularly Canada and Australia, could replace us on a permanent basis as world grain suppliers.

  18. Jonathan…yes, there would be a short-term impact, but why would it lead to a long-term shift in the market? Customer loyalty in the grain business is probably an *extremely* small number….

  19. Because once you’re comfortable with a commodity supplier there is little reason to switch suppliers absent a supply disruption. And because it may be prudent to diversify your sources if your main supplier proves to be more vulnerable to disruptions than you anticipated.

    (Note that I am talking about shipping, not production, disruptions. Of course grain is largely fungible, but an increase in the perceived unreliability of US shipping makes it rational for overseas buyers to diversify their sources of supply.)

    And of course we will have to wait and see what actually happens. Maybe the analyst I cited is too pessimistic. His argument seems plausible to me, however.

  20. I think praising the Dutch now won’t make any difference. The city is flooded and arguing about Dutch engineering versus politics doesn’t really help. Just my two cents.

    But to comment on the Dutch dike system: most of our dikes are designed to protect us against the North Sea. That are the dikes people seem to talk about.

    We have also river dikes who are much smaller, still higher as the levees, but that’s because the rivers’ waterlevel rises in the winter.

    There are some things you there have and we don’t. For instance hurricanes. Dutch enigneers doubt if dutch dikes would withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane. Yes, they are designed to stop storm-surges, but the max. windspeed here is 120 km/h. And that’s very rare, I myself never experienced these windspeeds. Our BFT 10-11 windspeeds are nothing compared to Katrina or other hurricanes.
    Another difference is that the Netherlands aren’t sinking, New Orleans is.

    So I, as someone living in Holland below sea-level think it isn’t fair to compare this. Disasters of this magnetude aren’t normal. It’s very unlikely that these kind of things will become normal business.

  21. I recall only 1 source that predicted this result as Katrina made the N.E turn so the eye would pass to the east of N.O. While others were once more celebrating “been there, drank to that”, and broadcasting the good news that once again N.O. would be spared a direct hit and could relax.
    ONLY Joe Bascardi(sp?)with AccuWeather
    accurately predicted exactly what was going to happen as the east eyewall passed and all the water pushed up the River into the Lake would be forced into the city when the wind shifted to the south. The levees were not simply breached by high water, they were forced open.
    Look at the number of school busses parked in flood water that could have been put into service by the mayor and an evacuation ordered in the projects where so many were plucked.
    Corruption: the Levee Board owned airplanes,part of an airport,gambling interests and loaned millions to “friends”.
    See also:

    Perhaps it was wise for the current administration to “cut-back” on funding, since it seems little was ever going to be used to build or shore up levees!

  22. MAYBE someone could enlighten me more about the purpose of the levies. Why did the city feel the need to divert the water somewhere else? Why not just let the water do what it does and build the nearest city back from the farthest point of where the water recedes? I cannot figure out why anyone would monkey around with a river unless it was to be a power source. Instead of building a levy around a bowl, why not let the bowl fill and build around that?


  24. On sat sep 3, on the Neal Cavuto show, one of the guest made the statement that the N.O. Levee commission has used monies that were to be used on the levees to build three gambling establishments and also gave monies for friends business ventures. The man seemed to very certain of his info. Of course, the hosts quickly went to other subjects instead of focusing on this info and asking more about it. I really don’t doubt it with the world famous corruptness of N.O. politicians. I also read where the Louisiana governor stated that Pres Bush made a personal plea to her and the N.O. mayor to please make a mandatory evacuation of the city the day before. Why wasn’t governor and the mayor using the city and school buses to go in and evacuate the city. There has been millions and millions of taxpayer dollars given to the N.O. through the last few decades for the levees, but it has been pilfered away by the corrupt politicians. Now, there is going to be billions of dollars given to the governor of Louisiana to spend as they seem fit for the disaster. I for one, am getting tired of paying for something over and over.

  25. My Dad lives in north Louisiana where Gov. Blaco managed to find a cocaine dealer to head up the Louisiana goverment ethics group, not sure of the actual name of the group. It seems that when Blanco got in, it was business as usual in the seedy world of Louisiana politics. Mayor Nagin who swore he was going to get some reform through even endorsed the Republican nominee for Gov. instead of the crook Blanco. Maybe this disaster will wake up the people of LA as the book Louisiana Hayride suggested would one day happen

  26. The sad fact is that resources should first be invested in:

    1. A society that was brought to America as slaves still a century and half ago.

    2. An adequate systems levies and dikes such as the steel one in St. Louis.

    3. True emergency relief funding.

    All this before putting tens of billions into the immoral Irak war where another city was lost and thousands have died for oil/economic reasons.

    Too many mistakes too many deaths too much waste – the USA should start to meditate on what it is doing.

  27. f.c,

    1) African-Americans are not a separate society. They are Americans. Your soft-racism is showing.

    2) No levee will protect against a Cat 4 or 5. The city was doomed to flood eventually and building more levees just lures more people into the danger zones. In addition, the levees destroy the surrounding ecology making the city more vulnerable to storm damage.

    3) American deals with at least one major disaster every year. We handle these events on routine basis better than anyone else. If the president was a democrat the picture you get of the Federal response in the media would be much different.

    I will remember that you would choose to live in a police state without the most basic freedoms rather that risk a war and the chance for freedom and democracy. But just because you would make that choice for yourself don’t assume that the people of Iraq have.

  28. New Orleans was founded upon the first bit of dry land above the mouth of the Mississippi river. And guess who owned this property – the Founder of New Orleans. Developers were crooked 300 years ago just as they always have been and still are today. Notice that the original parts of New Orleans did not flood even with the back levees breaking. The New Orleans Levee Board needs to be abolished and a Federalized system instituted. As far as re-building New Orleans lets let the Insurance Industry decide without Government backing as to what can be re-built. I live in Baton Rouge, LA and we are overwhelmed with hurricane victims from New Orleans and I hope we can help them in any way possible but I can just imagine in my mind the developers (lawyers, real-estate people, banks, etc) just chomping at the bit to make a killing off of these poor people and the federal government. All rental properties in our Parish have been rented at a premium and from what I’m told all real-estate for sale has been sold at a premium. There is now talk of a building boom getting ready to take off in our Parish. But I must tell you that 40% of East Baton Rouge Parish land lies in a flood zone and most of the vacant land available for new construction lies in the flood zone. Please let us put a stop to this nonsense of trading one flood zone for another. As you probably know all flood insurance payments are paid out by the federal government not insurance companies. Plus building on the 40% of the Parish that does flood will lead to major flooding in the 60% of the Parish that previously did not flood. This should be against the law and STOPPED.

  29. While watching TV yesterday, the president of the Red Cross said that they were prepared to go in with medical help, food, water and other essentials, but were prevented from coming in by the LOUISIANA Homeland Security dept, note this is not the federal homeland security. Their reason was they wanted the people not to stay in the area but to evacuate away from the area, which makes sense in a way. But, how can the Louisiana governor and the New Orleans mayor blame Pres Bush, FEMA and Homeland Security for not bringing help and supplies in, when their own dept in charge of disaster would not let the premier disaster relief organization, the RED Cross in. Also, why did not the governor and N O mayor iniate their disaster plan that was brought up to date last july. part of that plan was to evacuate those who had no means or were disabled by the city’s school buses. I saw one picture on TV where approx 100 school buses were all lined up in neat rows in about eight foot of water. Why were there police vehicles left to be flooded where the police had to commandeer private vehicles. Would not common sense tell you to have these vehicles taken to higher ground, after you supposedly used them to evacuate the people of N O. How can the governor and mayor have the nerve to go on TV and blame others when they themselves did nothing of their disaster plan. I hate to be so damn cynical at a time like this, but maybe, just maybe, they knew there was going to be all this disaster aid coming in that would replace a lot of their equipment. Why not, it has worked in the years before. Same way with the levee system, we can use the monies that were to be used on the levees on building gambling establishments, we can just tell the federal government that we used all the levee money up and we need some more, everyone knows that the feds don’t check up on where the money is spent. I would be very curious to know just how much federal and state monies were allotted to the levees in he last twenty years. I think we will find there was enough to build a wall a hundred feet high and a new lexus for every NO ciy official. I’m sorry, but when I see how those poor people of NO were treated by their elected officials, who did’nt even have the decency to try and evacuate them before the hurricane. Look at Mississippi, they got wiped out, haven’t got near the help, but seem to have things in control. what a difference in leadership.

  30. To: David Johnson…..

    First, was your family able to get out in time and are they all ok? Secondly, I am trying to find “Louisiana Hayride” so I can be more up to speed on the history and the prognostication of what has become their current dilemma. I have tried repeatedly to get objective information (pre-Katrina) regarding the allegedly corrupt “elected” political officials and some history from only as far back as Huey Long (it appears he is infamous and I must have missed that day in History class) to see where this whole city went awry….to no avail…everything I have located so far has an agenda and already has Katrina in the “history” portion….

    I am of the thinking that the state of Louisiana is accountable for what transpires good and bad in their state….it is always disturbing to see the blame game played in these types of “after the fact” situations….heads should NOT roll just to appease the apparent “mob mentality” of our American public…

    I know how important free speech is to our country (our forefathers are surely turning in their grave on that one), however, the media in its typical self-serving fashion has managed to fall short of reporting factual and objective news (there is a distinct gleam in their eye as they report about a tragedy that clearly could have been averted by the Louisiana political officials – how do they sleep at night, knowing they are contributing to the fear of those affected)….unfortunately, many people believe them and fall prey to this “brainwashing”, if you will, when it is propaganda at its lowest form.

    Maureen P. Hedigan….from Florida (another Hurricane state…..)

  31. I’m still wondering about the evacuation plan that New Orleans was supposed to have for people without a means to escape. I keep hearing about all of these school buses that were to be used. Whom was actually supposed to be the drivers of these buses? I would think most of these bus drivers drove their own families to safety when the evacuation order was given. I know I would have put my families safety first. Plus with a mass exodus from New Orleans, the roads and all lodgings in Baton Rouge were overwhelmed. Where were the relief and rescue personnel going to stay? Many people from the New Orleans area were forced to leave Baton Rouge area hotels because relief organizations had reserved all of the rooms for rescue efforts. I personally cannot place blame on any politicial,governmental, charitable or commercial entity for the relief efforts put forth after this massive hurricane. But I do believe that a serious investigation into the reason the levees broke and all enties involved in the system should be made by sources outside the local government. The Corps of Engineers should take over the levee system and the local levee board should be abolished.

  32. Actually, tack on “hurricane katrina”, you might end up with something other than what you wanted to find

  33. Actualy, in 1997 the core of engineers were to bring the levies up to a heigher standard until the seria club filed a lawsuit and stopped the project. They demanded an environmental study first.

  34. Many of the comments I have read here are based on misinformation that is ridiculous to the extreme.

    For example the people of New Orleans didn’t build the levees in New Orleans or the surrounding area. They were designed and their construction was engaged and supervised by the United States Corp of Engineers, without the participation of the city or state.

    Someone commented that St Louis knows how to address the problem as “they built a steel levee for a mile”. Assuming the city of St Louis built that levee (I suspect the US Corps of Engineers designed and funded that one also) its a lot different situation altogether. The New Orleans area is composed of several parishes(counties). Orleans Parish alone which accounts for half of the population of what people generally think of as New Orleans, has more than 150 miles of levees by itself.
    A project of the scale to rebuild levees to make the citizens of a city safe is way beyond the financial ability of any city and sits within the realm of the United States Government in the same manner that every major waterway diversion project, or highway construction for that matter is only able to be addressed on United States Government scale.

    Finally as the the issue of public corruption: Its a problem everywhere,but in Louisiana concerted efforts have been ongoing for years to bring it to the surface, publicize and prosecute aggressively. New Orleans has one of the best and most aggressive United States Attorneys in the country. In testimony before the United States Congress last month, Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor presented documentation that there were more charges of public corruption in the states of six of the members of Congress that sat on the committee reviewing the need for Katrina funding than there was in Louisiana.

  35. “A society that was brought to America as slaves 150 years ago”

    Those people are all dead, I don’t think resources should be allocated to them.

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