Here’s an interesting article on CNBC’s website: Katrina anniversary: Will New Orleans levees hold next time?
The 100-year threshold is also a statistical guess based on data on past storms and assessments of whether they’ll occur in the future. That means the models change every time a new hurricane strikes. The numbers being used as guidelines for construction are changing as time passes.
The standard also does not mean—can’t possibly mean—that a 100-year storm will occur only once per century. It means that such a storm has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. So for example, it’s technically possible for several 100-year floods to occur in just a few years, although it’s highly unlikely.
One way to look at it is that the engineers need to estimate how high a wall New Orleans needs to protect itself against a reasonably unlikely flood — say, a 1-in-1000-year event. This is the line of discussion pursued in the CNBC article.
Another way to look at it is to observe that the odds of another Katrina, or worse, within a specified period are highly uncertain. In this case a radical course of action might be called for. You do something like: take the best estimate for the wall height needed to protect against a 1000-year flood and then double it. Building such a levee would probably be extremely expensive but at least the costs would be out in the open. Or you might decide that it’s not the best idea to have a coastal city that’s below sea level, and so you would discourage people from moving back to New Orleans, rather than encourage them by subsidizing a new and stronger system of walls.
In this kind of situation the political incentives are usually going to encourage public decisionmakers to ignore radical solutions with high obvious costs, in favor of the minimum acceptable incremental solution with hidden costs: probably subsidies to rebuild the levees to, or perhaps a bit beyond, the standard needed to protect the city in the event of another Katrina. And it’s unlikely that any local pol is going to advise residents to move out and depopulate his constituency. Thus, eventually, a worst case will probably happen again.