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Debating Flood Control Raises Urban Rebuilding Questions

The scope of reconstruction may still be unclear in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding, so the early rebuilding focus has turned to flood control. The debate about what should have been done—and what should now be done—has already begun. It’s likely to parallel questions that will be raised once the costs and implications of building and rebuilding on beaches and flood plains becomes clearer.

“People forget,” said Fred Caver, former director of civil works at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “The urgent takes precedence. That’s a fact that those of us in the infrastructure business have been living with for a long time.” Tabor and his colleagues’ demands that Gulf states upgrade their storm protection schemes went largely unheeded and coastal Mississippi and Louisiana are now paying the price. “We’re pretty much consuming infrastructure and capital assets, leaving the problems for our children and grandchildren,” he added. Tabor and several other experts were convened by conference call in the first days after the disaster by Engineering News Record, Record’s sister publication.


Though Katrina was a natural disaster, much of what made it disastrous were acts of man. “I visited the affected shorelines after Hurricane Camille, 35 years ago, and saw the same two or three rows of houses destroyed.” said Oren Pilkey, of Duke University, a frequent critic of development on flood- and storm-prone coasts. He feels that much of the Mississippi beachfront, including heavily damaged Bay St. Louis and Biloxi might be better off returned to nature.

The lack of investment in the levee system that was supposed to have protected New Orleans has now widely been aired. Robert Flowers, once the head of the U.S. Army Corps of engineers who now heads up federal services for engineering/architect HNTB, advocated quick action on Coastal 2050, a plan for restoring Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. They have severely eroded because the levee system deprives them of silt from the natural flooding of the Mississippi River. It’s an expensive fix, costing billions, that won’t be quick. Flowers also suggested looking at flood-control projects in Holland, and the Thames River Barrier below London, both very elaborate and so-far effective means for keeping sea water out of low-lying areas.

Beefing up the levees in New Orleans has also been stymied by politics and by cost, Flowers noted. Massive super-levees invade neighborhoods, for example. And, predictably, the question of the degree to which poverty-stricken New Orleans should be rebuilt has already been raised. At the time of the conference call, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, had not yet commented that “it looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.” It may have been a stunningly insensitive remark, but Hastert is among the key people in Congress who must be persuaded to spend federal dollars on rebuilding and new river and shore protections.

A much-shrunken New Orleans is a real future possibility. The debate about such issues, Flowers noted presciently, “needs to occur and needs to occur quickly.” Added Dominic Izzo, vice president with engineering firm DMJM Harris, “I don’t think any solution for New Orleans can be separated from a solution for the coast and the river. It’s all integrated. A lot so stakeholders, politicians and others need to be involved.” He’ll get little argument on that point, but more debate, perhaps, on his contention that the Army Corps of Engineers should lead the planning effort. Both architects and planners will argue that their expertise in communities is superior to that of the Corps. Will such turf battles stall reconstruction?

Even if rebuilding money pours rapidly in, there’s still no consensus on how it should be spent. Says Pilkey, “I shudder about the Dutch idea because that was an extreme engineering solution. We’ve seen that more beach replenishment leads to more development and that leads to the potential for much more intensive damage in future storms. I want to make sure we’re not strictly looking at an engineering approach.”

Protecting the coast from the sea can’t await broader rebuilding, according to Greg Stone, a professor of coastal geology at Louisiana State University (calling in from Baton Rouge). “We’re told by meteorologists that we’ve entered a multi-decade period where we’ll see an increase in the number of Katrina-type storms. We’ve seen it here in Opal in 1995, then Ivan less than 10 years later; this year with Dennis and Katrina. This is a paradigm shift.”

James Russell