Stronger New Orleans’ levees could have high real estate and environmental cost
Louisiana officials want government to pay total cost for stronger New Orleans levees
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
September 21, 2005
Today The Wall Street Journal published an article on proposals for improving the levees around New Orleans. The city’s existing flood-control system, which was designed to handle up to a Category 3 hurricane, failed during Category 4 Katrina and New Orleans was swamped with flood water.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to build a levee system that could protect the city from the most powerful hurricanes but would cost billions of dollars, “send swarms of bulldozers into swank neighborhoods, threaten environmentally vulnerable marshes and trigger lawsuits from homeowners whose property would have to be seized to make room for the supersize levees.” To do so would require raising the height of levees five and 10 feet and widening the base of the dirt structures by 100 feet or more, which would block views of Lake Pontchartrain and consume valuable real estate.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Louisiana officials now believe that the federal government should pay for the entire construction of the stronger levees. The state’s Department of Natural Resources “has asked the state’s members of Congress to request $18.2 billion in federal funds for a variety of hurricane-protection projects and $14 billion to help restore wetlands that serve as a buffer zone against hurricanes.”
Some environmental groups have questioned whether the levee system of New Orleans may have actually increased the city’s vulnerability to Katrina’s storm surge by hastening the decline of wetland vegetation that usually buffers against rising floodwaters. America’s Wetland, a Baton Rouge organization, estimates that More than 1,900 square miles of the Louisiana have disappeared since the 1930s due to development and the construction of levees and canals. This, coupled with the loss of barrier islands and stands of natural vegetation has made the New Orleans area more susceptible to storm surges. Sharon Begley, a science columnist for The Wall Street Journal, notes that studies have shown that for every square mile of wetlands lost, storm surges rise by one foot.
Last week The Clarion-Ledger reported that federal officials were preparing to blame the flood of New Orleans on environmental groups. The Mississippi newspaper obtained a copy of an internal e-mail sent out by the U.S. Department of Justice to various U.S. attorneys’ offices. The email reads, “Has your district defended any cases on behalf of the (U.S.) Army Corps of Engineers against claims brought by environmental groups seeking to block or otherwise impede the Corps work on the levees protecting New Orleans? If so, please describe the case and the outcome of the litigation.”
Jerry Mitchell, author of the The Clarion-Ledger article, notes that the email may be the result of someone noticing the Sept. 8 issue of National Review Online which
“chastised the Sierra Club and other environmental groups for suing to halt the corps’ 1996 plan to raise and fortify 303 miles of Mississippi River levees in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.
The corps settled the litigation in 1997, agreeing to hold off on some work until an environmental impact could be completed. The National Review article concluded: “Whether this delay directly affected the levees that broke in New Orleans is difficult to ascertain.”
The problem with that conclusion?
The levees that broke causing New Orleans to flood weren’t Mississippi River levees. They were levees that protected the city from Lake Pontchartrain levees on the other side of the city.
When Katrina struck, the hurricane pushed tons of water from the Gulf of Mexico into Lake Pontchartrain, which borders the city to the north. Corps officials say the water from the lake cleared the levees by 3 feet. It was those floodwaters, they say, that caused the levees to degrade until they ruptured, causing 80 percent of New Orleans to flood.
Environmental problems worsened Hurricane Katrina’s impact – 31-August-2005
The loss of coastal marshlands that buffer New Orleans from flooding and storm surges may have worsened the impact of Hurricane Katrina.
This article used information and quotes from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL [“Supersizing the Levees” (September 21, 2005) By MICHAEL CORKERY and ANN CARRNS; and ], and The Clarion-Ledger [“E-mail suggests government seeking to blame groups” (September 16, 2005)By Jerry Mitchell].