Preventing Another “Unnatural Disaster” Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina was not just a natural disaster – it was a failure of man. Ten years later, more needs to be done to modernize the Army Corps of Engineers, promote natural flood protection, and reduce reliance on levees.

Lieut. Commander Mark Moran, NOAA Corps

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 that followed was a tragic and appalling disaster. But it was not a natural disaster. Poor project planning, flawed project design, misplaced priorities, and the destruction of the city’s natural flood protection – Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, were the root causes of the city’s ruin. Each of these causes lies firmly within the hands of man.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.

4 responses to “Preventing Another “Unnatural Disaster” Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina

  1. Also, let’s stop with the nonsense about storms becoming stronger or more frequent
    The National Hurricane Center has reported that worldwide storms are neither increasing in intensity nor in frequency since 1850.

  2. Well, missing from this litany of woe and prescriptions for salvation is the undeniable and well documented history of massive corruption within Louisiana in general and new orleans in particular. As long as nothing is done about the graft within the state and it’s perpetrators, throwing money at new orleans is a complete waste of time and money

  3. After watching the hurricane season come and go for 50 years, there is only one conclusion to draw regarding prevention. It is not that prevention consists in building stronger levees, or designing better wetland buffers. The conclusion is certainly not that the Army Corps of Engineers is to blame for hurricane damage. The conclusion is the city limits must end 125 miles inland where no hurricane has ever been known to extend its deadly reach. That is the only logical conclusion given 200 years of hurricane data. The data show there are no man-made materials, designs for levee break, wetlands or pumping stations that will withstand 111 mile-per-hour winds and 20-feet of water rushing in to below-sea-level areas from hurricane surge sustained across miles for days.

    It is illogical to conclude hurricane damage is a man-made problem. A CAT-5 hurricane is a force of nature larger than man. When man-made efforts can not possibly halt the path of a CAT-5 hurricane, we do not blame those who tried year after year to keep the city safe. They are heroes working against odds neither you nor I nor anyone else could overcome. No one could have done any better.

    There is just one solution to the problem of repeated hurricane damage and its related loss of life and property as documented in 200 years of scientific study. Out of the path of the hurricane is where coastal cities must be rebuilt. It is the only reasonable conclusion. It is an insane proposal to rebuild where the historical record shows there has been continuous loss of life and property since 1851. The same hurricane data compiled over 200 years show that after making landfall, no hurricane has ever crept past the 125 to 150-mile radius from the coast. Rather than investing efforts in a hopeless cause, moving the city limits inland is the most effective route to living happily ever after in a Gulf state.

    While the coast might remain open for recreational use January to June, out of the hurricane season, and some businesses able to absorb the devastating financial impact of a hurricane might locate below sea level on the river bank year round, the area remains a known hazard zone and should not be open for permanent, full-time residence.

    There are many insurance companies who will no longer fund rebuilding in a hazard area, and offer replacement and rebuilding costs only if the insured relocates out of the hazard area. It is sound financial and public safety policy. You want the people out of harm’s way. You want as close to zero risk and zero harm as you can get. Inland is the safety zone. If it isn’t self-evident by now, checking the annual hurricane damage estimates yields a sobering comparison point. A move 125 to 150 miles inland saves thousands of lives, prevents 800,000 cases of homelessness from hurricane-related property loss, and prevents $81 billion in damage every year. The best man-made solution to an irresistible force of nature, when no coastal city is an removable object, is to get out of the path of the hurricane. Anything short of that is the definition of insanity: to keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

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