When the levees break ... again
Wednesday, April 1, 2009 - 14:37
Amid the heat of the mid-day afternoon summer sun, the putrid stench of raw sewage and dead bodies penetrated the thick, Louisiana air. An entire city lay motionless underneath a cesspool of toxic chemicals stirred occasionally by the rudder of a rescue boat scrambling to retrieve stranded survivors.
That was the scene in the aftermath of arguably the worst non-wartime disaster in this country’s history, resulting in the loss of 1,482 lives and leaving more than 8,000 homeless, with estimated damages surpassing $100 million. It was the storm that the people of New Orleans had always feared, a superfluous reminder of their perpetual impending doom prevented only by a flimsy and insufficient levee system.
Four years later, as another hurricane season approaches, an entire city will be forced to hold its collective breath yet again behind a similarly inadequate concrete barrier that that lacks any evidence of improvement, closely resembling its condition before Hurricane Katrina.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the organization held responsible for the 53 levee breaches in New Orleans in 2005, has announced tentative plans to expedite the process of increasing the city’s flood protection. On March 28, the Corps submitted its budget proposal to the White House, which, if approved, will triple its budget during the 2009 fiscal year and increase spending for the projects already in motion. Included in their plans is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA) which aims at improving 12 major drain lines and constructing two new pump stations in the Orleans Parish by 2016 — that is if government funding is available.
Another proposal to improve the city’s flood defense is the Larose to Golden Meadow Hurricane Protection Project, which intends to provide 100-year hurricane protection to those areas along Bayou Lafourche. The Corps has also attempted its first design-build project, the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier, which will reduce the storm surge in some of the most vulnerable parts of New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parrish.
During Hurricane Katrina, many became aware of the lack of communication within the Army Corps of Engineers as well as its ability to communicate with the outside public. To address this issue, Rene Poche, a public affairs officer with the Corps, has asserted plans to utilize online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook during the upcoming 2009 hurricane season to more efficiently correspond directly with the public about storm preparation and response.
As for the levees, it remains to be seen if they will hold up during the next barrage of storms this summer. Of course, southeast Louisiana is not the only part of the country where the Corps needs to address the threat of inadequate protection against catastrophic flooding. According to Levees.org, 43 percent of all Americans live in a county that is protected by levees, and 28 states have levees that are in a state of active failure.
Cities from all corners of the United States — from Seattle and Sacramento to Detroit and Washington D.C. — are at risk of experiencing substantial flooding at a similar capacity to what occurred in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. This became evident on March 29 when a dike broke in Fargo, N.D., causing the campus of a local high school to become completely inundated by water from the nearby Red River. This is just a taste of things to come if the urgency to upgrade our levees is not amplified.
The citizens of New Orleans — and I proudly include myself in that group — have been asking for better protection against flooding for decades. Unfortunately, our cries for help were all but ignored until it was too late. Now, four years after Hurricane Katrina, the failures of the past have yet to be corrected, and the threat of another environmental disaster looms over the horizon beyond the receding wetlands and deep into the ominous waters of the Gulf. How many times will we be forced to sit idly, watching as the levees break, washing away the lives that we’ve worked so hard to rebuild and the enduring spirit that we’ve struggled so hard to maintain?
During the upcoming hurricane season, the 300,000 people of New Orleans will close their eyes, cross their fingers and mutter their same tired, wishful response: not again.
Photo: Alex Landau