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September 01, 2005

When the levee breaks

Many media outlets, politicians and pundits are asking why more was not done to improve, amongst other things, shoring up New Orleans' levee system. A quick search of public pronouncements made by any such media outlets, politicians and pundits should reveal just how much attention they had paid to the issue before last week. Or indeed, before today's finger-pointing news cycle. I can think of a dozen equivalent risks faced by emergency planners that by all appearances still do not occupy the minds of these savants of hind-sight.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at September 1, 2005 06:41 PM

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Like I replied over at Alan's blog, New Orleans is constantly sinking, about 3ft a century.

New Orleans and southern Louisiana needed about USD $14 billion in funding to underwrite wetland remediation, rebuilding of barrier islands, levee upgrades, and controlled flooding and re-sedimentation of the Mississippi delta.

It's hard to find politicians that can get elected on promises of no bread and circuses, but lots and lots of wetlands.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 1, 2005 09:50 PM

Outside of Holland, that is. Others do plan better. But just as we do not know why the levees broke, we do not know the degree to which they were too well trusted by the population and the politicians or whether these have always been local issues no one else outside the City had on the radar as, unlike Holland, only a small fraction of the population of the country is concerned. But we do know that they were only built to a factor of "X" and that the sea can go beyond "X" given past disasters in that area.

But that is a separate question from the lack of emergency preparedness. It would not have been an issue if there had been a plan to have buses enter on Highway 10 with medical teams and stockpiled ratios in 48 hours rather than where we now are at 96. Yet maybe there was and it was all sitting at Biloxie.

So none of us know. It may in the end only be about scale. Yet no one is really saying that. They are only saying that they are waiting and that says to me the plan was someone else would deal with the thing that would never happen anyway.

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 07:10 AM

This is an interesting article from National Geographic from Oct'04. Amazingly, terribly prophetic. The 14b$ project that Chris mentions also had a 30 year timeframe. Interesting comments, too, regarding oil&gas drilling, subsidence and wetland health.

Posted by: The_Campblog [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 07:32 AM


Posted by: The_Campblog [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 07:33 AM

The Delta Works are hardly an argument-ending trump, Alan. They still subside, along with the mainland, and eventually they too will have to be raised.

More importantly, construction of the Delta project began 1957, four years after the devastating North Sea Flood of 1953. It's not strictly a matter of superior Dutch vision -- they got hit with their own disaster and decided to bring about a multi-generational (but still temporary) end to the risk.

The Netherlands lost 1,836 people in that flood. The analogue to New Orleans would have been 1969's Hurricane Camille, which killed 113 people (in Virginia, not New Orleans). They would have to have started construction on the USD $14B remediation program no later than 1974 to have it all finished in time for Katrina.

As far as emergency preparedness goes, I don't think any jurisdiction in the world is prepared to deal with the total infrastructure loss of a city of 700,000 souls (metro region, 1.4M souls). How exactly, aside from massive emergency aid -- which is never immediate nor fully sufficient -- does one prepare for that?

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 11:45 AM

... while also trying to prepare for every other hard to assess risk faced by any level of government. And while trying to convince people it is a sound investment in comparison with the numerous other things to spend money on or take on in lieu of a tax cut.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 12:30 PM

See I just do not agree with that. As Michael D has pointed out what has Homeland Security been doing in relation to New Orleans if it has not preparing for a bombing of the levees. And in any event seeing as the levees have been a plan in place for almost 300 years, expecting good foresight and planning at that scale over 30 years is not extraordinaty. I am involved with municipal infrastructure planning over that span of time for many projects which while not 14 billion certainly over that span are getting near a 1/14th of it around here. We have to forecast risk and need or we would be doomed. Toronto would certainly be planning in that range for many matters of infrastructure over that time and at that value...and if Toronto's infrastructure contained dykes I would expect that would be part of the planning just as transportantion and sewers would be planned.

So is there some in the nature of an urban dyke system that means you cannot long term plan at the scale it clearly requires - and clearly was understood to require last week and 30 years ago? I can't see anything. It there anything unforeseeable as to a storm of that nature? None.

Just to be clear, I am not saying anything about this administration or that at any level. But as to the general proposition that no one could of foreseen this - that is simply not true. It is simply untenable and, while the Dutch are an example of it, they are in no way the only example of large scale planning and risk management.

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 01:22 PM

Actually, there's a far more interesting article in drumroll Scientific American, from october 2001 no less.
Not willing to drag myself into the hindsight discussion, however, overall the Bush administration seems to care less about science, and more about religion.

Posted by: alfons [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 01:34 PM

Interestingly enough Alan, I agree with all of your points in your last comment. The problem though is that there are lots of people who see it as a nice and convenient way to score points against this particular U.S. administration, and it is difficult to differentiate the honest questions from the point-scorers.

One point about the Dutch though, as I mentioned before -- they sustained actual loss of life in the flood that preceded planning for their Delta Works project, whereas New Orleans suffered no loss of life during Hurricane Camille. This avoidance of large-scale death may have led municipal or state officials to believe that their disaster planning was already sufficient.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 01:54 PM

Alfons! This truely is cross-posting mayhem. Chris: We are sympatico.
Flea: I have now added the wish to life in a Flea-based reality to my Christmas list.

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 02:08 PM

It does offer the advantage of more women with Australian accents.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 02:41 PM


Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 03:52 PM