September 9, 2005
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 doneand
what should now be donehas already begun. Its
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. Thats 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. Were 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,
Records 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
Louisianas coastal wetlands. They have severely eroded
because the levee system deprives them of silt from the natural
flooding of the Mississippi River. Its an expensive
fix, costing billions, that wont 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
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
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
dont think any solution for New Orleans can be separated
from a solution for the coast and the river. Its all
integrated. A lot so stakeholders, politicians and others
need to be involved. Hell 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, theres still
no consensus on how it should be spent. Says Pilkey, I
shudder about the Dutch idea because that was an extreme engineering
solution. Weve 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
were not strictly looking at an engineering approach.
Protecting the coast from the sea cant await broader
rebuilding, according to Greg Stone, a professor of coastal
geology at Louisiana State University (calling in from Baton
Rouge). Were told by meteorologists that weve
entered a multi-decade period where well see an increase
in the number of Katrina-type storms. Weve 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.