This article originally appeared in GOOD Issue 020: The New Orleans Issue, on newsstands now. Read more from The New Orleans Issue here.
There has been a lot of admirable progress in New Orleans in the last five years, but what happens during the next big storm? Could all this progress be washed away? After all, the physical geography of the city hasn’t changed: It still sits vulnerably surrounded by water, tucked between (and in many places, below) two massive lakes, the continent’s biggest river, and an ever-warming Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, dealing with water is nothing new for New Orleans; flood prevention shaped the city. But the city’s new Master Plan — approved in January — is the first initiative to have “anticipated rapidly sinking land (predicted to subside another three feet in many parts of the city by 2100) or globally rising sea levels.”
The new plan is an opportunity to correct the course. It is the result of an unprecedented public participation and worldwide consultation, and its top priorities, according to lead organizer David Dixon, are “to protect the city and the region from the impacts of rising seas and global weather change.”
So what is the city actually doing? And what more could it be doing, to anticipate hazards and lessen vulnerability? Here’s a look.
Bigger, better levees: There were 50 levee breaches in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish during Hurricane Katrina. Some levees had water flood over them, some were eroded by the force of the water, and four failed entirely at their foundations. The obvious and immediate fix: Make them bigger and better. The Army Corps of Engineers has set out to do just that, with locals expressing tentative confidence that they won’t screw it up it again. Some levees are being raised, some are being armored with metal, and the major foundational failures have been rebuilt as stronger “T-wall” structures.
Status: Essential levees have been repaired; nearly all should be beefed up by 2011, though delays continue to plague the project.
Floating homes: Some people — especially the elderly or less mobile New Orleanians — would prefer not to climb 10 feet of stairs to get to the first floor. Architects have come up with a solution: Make the base of the house like a raft that can rise with flood waters. The first such house in the United States was built by the Make It Right Foundation in the Lower Ninth Ward, but this technology has been put to work in the Netherlands for a decade.
Status: There’s one of them.
Elevated homes: The city is actually mandating that flood-damaged homes near the levees be elevated to safe levels. The definition of “safe” is changing: Current city standards protect against a one-in-100-year storm, but the new master plan adopts the stringent one-in-500-year storm standard. To foot the bill for the renovation, a Louisiana state program offers up to $100,000 per house, and local construction and design firms have mastered the art of making elevated homes blend in.
Status: Under way and ongoing.
Blueways: Over time, the city’s countless navigation canals, drainage canals, and bayous have been penned in by concrete works. But with thoughtful design and landscaping, canals and rain gardens can absorb rainwater, relieving the potential for flooding while also creating attractive outdoor spaces for pleasure and recreation (with the occasional alligator). The master plan highlights Bayou St. John as one such “cherished feature” in its neighborhood, and says that “if risk is properly managed, water can become a great asset to neighborhoods and their quality of life.”
Status: Lots of discussion.
A surge barrier: To block storm surges coming from the Gulf and to better protect vulnerable neighborhoods, a massive barrier is being built in the wetlands east of the city that will take the brunt of any wall of water forced up the river by an oncoming storm. The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier project is said to be the biggest design-build civil-works project in Army Corps of Engineers history, running nearly two miles long and standing more than 20 feet above the water.
Status: Under way, to be completed in 2011.
Gates and pumps: None of the city’s three outfall canals, which are intended to drain water north into Lake Pontchartrain during major storms, worked properly during Katrina — and two failed entirely. One big reason was the surge coming from the lake, which reversed the water’s flow and pushed even more water back up into the canals and over the levees. The Army Corps has since built steel gates at the lake entrances of the canals, which can be shut when a surge prohibits drainage. Newly installed pumps will then push rainwater out of the canals and into the lake.
Forced relocation: Shortly after Katrina, there were many calls — mostly from outside of the city — to abandon the lowest-lying neighborhoods that had seen the worst of the floods. From still-waterlogged stoops, proud citizens cried back, “We will rebuild, and we will rebuild here.” Some in the city do lament the fact that there’s still no incentive to build in higher areas, but these complaints are rarely heard from the most vulnerable neighborhoods, where family roots on a block can go back 12 generations.
Wetlands restoration: The coastal wetlands that have historically protected New Orleans and southern Louisiana from dangerous storm surges have rapidly disappeared over the past few decades as land developers have dried out the region. It’s clear to anyone paying attention that a comprehensive plan to restore these crucial wetlands is essential for the city’s long-term resilience. Yet, according to Samuel Steinmetz, assistant director of the Loyola Center for Environmental Law and Land Use, “The political will to do what really needs to be done in restoring the wetlands simply isn’t here.” The good news is that the master plan does recognize the need, and promises a few near-term actions — prohibiting drainage of wetlands for building without a special permit and creating a special land-use zoning category for coastal wetlands — that could start to reverse the draining trend.
Status: Long-term hopes; short-term frustration.
A version of this story originally appeared on GOOD. Read it here.
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