As Hurricane Katrina rushed towards New Orleans the nation watched in horror as levees broke and water rushed in. We were even more outraged when we realized that this was no natural disaster- it was a failure of man. In 2006 American Rivers highlighted several of the ways man failed New Orleans and the Gulf in “Unnatural Disasters, Natural Solutions: Lessons From The Flooding of New Orleans.”
The flooding of New Orleans was the direct result of over-engineering the Mississippi River and other flawed projects planned and designed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Levees and navigation projects destroyed coastal wetlands, interfered with the deposition of sediment needed to replenish coastal wetlands, and funneled the storm surge into New Orleans. To make matters worse, the Army Corps used flawed designs to build the levee and floodwall system that were supposed to protect the city.
One example of our hubris is the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). This little used, 76 mile long, deep navigation channel was cut through coastal marsh in 1965 to create a shortcut between the Mississippi River and the Gulf. The channel destroyed over 27,000 acres of wetlands and was dubbed a “hurricane surge super highway”. As Hurricane Katrina moved towards New Orleans, MRGO funneled the 20 foot wall of water toward communities, leveling levees and floodwalls and bringing catastrophic destruction.
Today, New Orleans and surrounding communities are making strides towards achieving their vision for a resilient Gulf Coast. MRGO was finally deauthorized and a surge barrier was constructed; the Army Corps recommended over $ 1.3 billion in restoration projects to Congress; and the State of Louisiana released the 2012 Coastal Master Plan which includes many of the ecosystem restoration projects. However much more needs to be done to cope with rising seas and increased storm intensity due to climate change, starting with funding for restoration projects. The MRGO Must Go Coalition recently outlined what is needed to build a resilient Gulf Coast in the report “10th Anniversary of Katrina: Making New Orleans a Sustainable Delta City for the Next Century”.
Preventing the Next Flood Disaster
There are three key changes that are needed to prevent the next flood disaster and achieve safer and healthier communities and rivers across the nation. These changes will be increasingly critical as climate change becomes more of a reality of our lives. Have we made any progress over the past decade?
Modernize the Army Corps of Engineers
The Army Corps’ project planning process is outdated and flawed which contributes to inadequate projects and environmental damage. Don’t take my word for it. The National Academy of Sciences, the Government Accountability Office, the Army Inspector General, federal agencies, and independent experts have all issued studies highlighting a pattern of stunning flaws in Army Corps project planning.
Hurricane Katrina shone a bright spotlight on these inadequacies and spurred Congress to make vital reforms. We celebrated in 2007 when Congress told the Army Corps to rewrite their project planning guidelines and again in 2014 when the Obama Administration released progressive new guidelines.
Unfortunately, Congress quickly forgot the lessons of Katrina. Bafflingly, over the past few years Congress has actually told the Army Corps they are forbidden from spending money to implement new and improved guidelines. The Army Corps continues to use outdated planning guidelines to plan water projects.
Adopt Natural Flood Protection
If the coastal wetlands in the Gulf had not been destroyed by canals, levees, and channels, they would likely have provided some degree of natural flood protection from Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge. Inland, natural flood protection can also be attained by maintaining healthy uplands and watersheds that slow the rate of runoff, protecting and restoring wetlands and floodplains, and by restoring a river’s natural flow and meandering channel.
Natural flood protection is slowly gaining a foothold across the country, but we have a long way to go before it is routinely the go-to choice for flood-prone communities. Many communities are making wise investments in natural flood protection like the innovative Floodplains by Design program in Washington state; building coastal resilience following Hurricane Sandy and improving infrastructure by upgrading undersized road-stream crossings in the Northeast; and investing in multiple-benefit floodplain restoration in California’s Central Valley.
The federal government has also made some changes that will encourage communities to look at natural flood protection choices in recent years. President Obama issued a new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard which requires federal agencies to consider nature-based approaches when investing in the floodplain and the 2015 Hazard Mitigation Assistance Guidance from FEMA allows for investment in “ecosystem-based or hybrid approaches to disaster risk reduction”.
Abandon Over-Reliance On Structural Protections Like Levees and Floodwalls
Structural flood “control” projects can cause severe environmental harm and when they fail the results can be disastrous. When a levee is constructed there is often a rush to develop behind them because people assume they will be safe. But levees only provide protection to a certain point. Floods can be higher than levees or erode away inadequate structures. When this happens levee failure can be fast and sudden, flooding development that may not have been built if the levee were never there in the first place.
That said, there is a lot of existing development in floodplains. Acquiring and restoring all the developed floodplain land in the nation would be an impossible task so levees and floodwalls are going to remain a tool in our flood risk reduction strategy toolbox. However, as we move forward, we need to do a better job making sure that these structures are the last option, only utilized once we’ve exhausted every other option. Improvements to the water project planning guidelines mentioned above are a good step in that direction, but we need the Army Corps to implement them to make real progress. Until they do, the drive for natural flood protection is going to have to come from communities and states that recognize that healthy rivers result in healthy, sustainable, and resilient communities.