TCS Daily

Breaks in the Levee Logic

By Duane D. Freese - September 2, 2005 12:00 AM

The news and opinion spin cycle is moving faster than the winds of a category 4 hurricane. Barely have we had the opportunity to feel denial about the terrible tragedy, feel sympathy for victims and begin lending our support than we've leapt to the stage of recrimination: Who's to blame?

And the rush to judgment is running ahead of appropriate investigation and facts.

Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, raised the question "Did the New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen?" He quoted Louisiana officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the New Orleans area in old Tiimes-Picayune's stories complaining about cuts by the Bush administration in federal funding for levees and flood protection, particularly ACE's Alfred Naomi, stating in June 2004:

        "The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything 
        is sinking, and if we don't get the money fast enough to raise them, then we
        can't stay ahead of the settlement. The problem that we have isn't that 
        the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we can't
        raise them."

The New York Times, in its lead editorial Thursday titled "Waiting for a Leader," churlishly went after President Bush for his first speech which it called terrible. It went on to pretend it knew what New Orleans' problem was -- a lack of federal funding. Specifically it called for the House to restore $70 million in funds for the levees next year.

The Washington Post, in an editorial that talked about not casting blame now, nonetheless couldn't resist casting some, saying the "president's most recent budgets have actually proposed reducing funding for flood prevention in the New Orleans area, and the administration has long ignored Louisiana politicians' request for more help in protecting their fragile coast."

USA Today did a better job in a pair of edits -- one on the disaster response and one on the energy supply -- by recognizing that the state and local government had a roll in building Louisiana's infrastructure. On energy, it even went so far as to say some things some anti-oil groups hate to hear -- how obstructionists to development of new refineries, offshore and Alaskan energy supplies share the blame for the nation's reliance on Gulf Coast supplies.

But it, too, got caught up in the drumbeat about the levees, arguing: "[P]eople living along the Gulf Coast have grown up hearing about what could happen if the 'big one' hit the region. Yet the levees weren't raised or strengthened sufficiently to prevent flooding. Initial plans for evacuating the city and ensuring civil order were haphazard at best."

Indeed, if editorial writers had a comment to make it was to say something about the levees.

And why not? The levees broke, didn't they? That's what helped mess up the rescue effort, didn't it? And there were cuts in federal help, weren't there?

The answers to all these questions are yes. But, the fact is, they miss an important point, which The New York Times editorialists might have discovered had they read their own news story by Andrew Revkin and Christopher Drew. The reporters quoted Shea Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans, about how surprising it was that the break in the levee was "a section that was just upgraded."

"It did not have an earthen levee," he told them. "It had a vertical concrete wall several feet thick."

Worse for the editorial writers were statements by the chief engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen Carl Strock: "I don't see that the level of funding was really a contributing factor in this case. Had this project been fully complete, it is my opinion that based on the intensity of this storm that the flooding of the business district and the French Quarter would have still taken place."

The reason: the funding would only have completed an upgrade of the levees to a protect against a level 3 hurricane. Katrina was a level 4 plus.

And the reasons for this goes back decades.

Since the 1930s, when levee building began in earnest, Louisiana has lost a million acres of its coastal wetlands, and faces the loss of another 640,000 additional acres -- an area the size of Rhode Island -- by 2050.

A new study based on satellite measurement released in May found that the wetlands area was sinking at a half-inch to two-inches a year as of 1995, or up to more than a 1.5 feet a decade.

"If subsidence continues and/or sea level rises and human action fails to take place, the entire coast will be inundated," Roy Dokka of the Louisiana Spatial Reference Center at Louisiana State University and an author of the study noted in July.

And he went on in a Times-Picayune piece that columnist Bunch apparently failed to examine:

        "The current plans to save the coast are focused on fixing wetlands, 
        which is incredibly important, but the problem is that subsidence is affecting
        the entire coast. We need to combine those plans with regional hurricane 
        levees and sand shoals. We have to find some way to protect the people and 
        valuable infrastructure we have on the coast."

This echoes a point that was raised by the White House Office of Management and Budget in a review of the Corps of Engineers levee and flood work back in 2003. It noted that while the Corps managed projects that reduced flood damage to specific areas, annual flood damages to the nation were increasing. As such, it wanted the Corps -- though well-managed -- to broaden its approach by coordinating with federal flood mitigation efforts -- to be "more pro-active in preventing flood risks rather than reacting to them."

The regional Corps head so often quoted by the media himself said in 2003 that a project to protect the city from a category 4 or 5 storm would take 30 years to complete, with the feasibility study alone costing $8 million and taking six years to complete. At the time he opined, "Hopefully we won't have a major storm before then."

As for the $14 billion plan called Coastal 2050 for wetlands restoration that Louisiana politicians have been pushing for the last two years for the federal government to provide a stream of funds -- up to 65% of the cost -- some experts say it was only a stop-gap.

"We are not going to stop marsh loss. Subsidence is too dominant," James Coleman, a professor of coastal studies at Louisiana State University, told the Times Picayune a few years ago. Coastal restoration "is a temporary fix in terms of geological time. You will see results of massive coastal restorations in our lifetime, but in the long run they are also going to go."

Indeed, those interested in getting a taste of the complexity of New Orleans situation, a good place to start is to read "The Creeping Storm" by Greg Brouer in the June 2003 Civil Engineering Magazine:

        "During the past 40 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent hundreds
        of millions of dollars constructing a barrier around the low-lying city of 
        New Orleans to protect it from hurricanes. But is the system high enough? 
        And can any defense ultimately protect a city that is perpetually sinking -- in 
        some areas at a rate of half an inch (editor's note: Or up to 2 inches) 
        per year?"

We know the answer to the first question now -- obviously not. The answer to the second question will require more investigation. It would be nice if some editorial writers would perform a little more. Snap judgments in this situation are worse than no judgment at all.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.


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