Friday, August 10, 2007

The Army Corps of Engineers and New Orleans

Time has got the jump on the rest of the pack with its two years after Katrina story. Here's the cover: The story makes a compelling case that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has made New Orleans more vulnerable to hurricanes:
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.

It's worth remembering that New Orleans wasn't surrounded by levees when it was founded in 1718:
"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.
That was before the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in:
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.
And the result?
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
The result is that New Orleans is sinking, and about 30% of the coast's wetlands have slipped into the Gulf, jutting Louisiana's chin even further into the path of Mother Nature's fist, endangering the U.S.'s largest offshore oil and gas fields, a lucrative seafood industry, a busy network of ports and about 2 million people.

The entire piece is saddening and maddening.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to reading this article. Mr. Grunwald did a bunch of articles in the Post some years ago on the Corps and their flood control projects on the Mississippi. Those articles made the Corps (and some of their contractors) pretty nervous at the time.

Have you heard any of Harry Shearer's shows on New Orleans? He did one shortly after Katrina talking about the cultural history of the city that was informative and heartbreaking. He also did one with the leader of the Team Louisiana engineering review, Ivor van Heerden which was very smart and very straightforward for a guy from Spinal Tap.

2:21 PM, August 10, 2007  
Blogger Tom Noyes said...

Just yesterday, Harry Shearer posted this on New Orleans over at Huffington Post:

4:05 PM, August 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a very good article, thanks!

Grunwald certainly has his issues with the Corps, but he is certainly right that there is no real water resources policy for the US and there is no solid feasibility (or prioritization) review for requested water projects. And the lack of water policy can be see not just in the Mississippi River Basin, but also in the use of the Oglala Aquifer, coastal resources tasks, and anything related to the Colorado River. Congresspeople and the Administration (multiple Administrations) have been willing to point the Corps at various crises to do something now to mask the real systemic issues.

Interestingly, the Corps never has to deal with Congress in the way that most engineers have to deal with their clients. All the Corps has to do is say yes and deliver (mostly) on the requests. The Corps does do its military and its Work for Others in a very different relationship with its stakeholders.

Also -- the Harry Shearer interview with Professor Von Heerden is here: Scroll down to the August 27, 2006 entry for the podcast.

3:51 PM, August 14, 2007  
Blogger Tom Noyes said...

Thanks for the link.

4:19 PM, August 14, 2007  

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