Billions Spent On Flood Barriers, But New Orleans Still A 'Fishbowl'
In the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has nearly completed one of the world's most remarkable hurricane protection systems to encircle New Orleans. Locals say their low-lying city finally has the storm defenses it should have had before Katrina, which killed hundreds and caused billions in property losses.
"The West Bank is astronomically safer. There is no comparison since before Katrina and today," says Susan Maclay, president of Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — West. It's one of the state entities created after Katrina to consolidate and improve flood control.
A tugboat cruises up the Intracoastal Waterway through a giant concrete and steel structure called the West Closure Complex that is one of the engineering marvels of the new system. During a flood event, a water gate nearly as long as a football field slowly shuts and 11 behemoth diesel engines kick on to pump water out of Jefferson Parish.
"This structure cost approximately $1.1 billion," Maclay boasts. "It consists of the largest pump station in the world. It can fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in three seconds."
The West Closure Complex is part of the $14.5 billion the Corps is spending on fortifications to protect some 900,000 people living in the toe-tip of Louisiana. That's almost as much as the cost of a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
The ring of protection around New Orleans is a vast improvement over the old system of federal levees and flood walls that failed catastrophically during Katrina. In the past decade, the Corps has paid to strengthen 350 miles of hurricane barriers and built massive new flood gates using better construction materials and more advanced computer storm modeling. They've also updated pumping stations that are essential to de-water a flooded city.
The old pump houses, some more than a century old, were considered so vulnerable that some workers freaked out and abandoned them when the water rose during Katrina. Ricky Ray was a pump operator with the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board who heroically stayed at his post. He was interviewed a few days after the storm.
"The first night the mosquitoes wasn't too bad," he said in a thick New Orleans accent. "Second night, they was bigger. The third night they was like B-29s in the window and the water was goin' septic. I said, 'We gotta get the hell outta here.' "
The new pump stations and closure structures have safe houses for workers built to withstand 250 mph winds, with air-conditioning and enough provisions to last a week.
The largest flood control structure is nicknamed the Great Wall of St. Bernard Parish. It's a 1.8-mile-long barrier that is supposed to protect the city's eastern flank from Lake Borgne if the water rises. Some of the steel support piles extend 200 feet underground.
"I think this surge barrier here was $1.7 billion. It's in Corps dollars, so it's like Monopoly money. The numbers are mind-boggling," says Steve Estopinal, the outgoing president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East.
He's holding onto his Panama hat as the powerboat he's riding in skims along the water, scaring up white egrets. Estopinal estimates this year it will cost about $2 million just to maintain the massive surge wall. That doesn't include 200 miles of levees that have to be constantly inspected, mowed and periodically raised because of natural subsidence.
"You can't just build it and leave it," he says. "If you don't maintain them properly and pay attention to them on a regular basis, they will deteriorate and then when a storm comes they will not function."
Now that the flood control system is nearly finished, Washington and Baton Rouge are arm-wrestling over who will pay to maintain it. The Corps has agreed, in theory, to pay for a portion of its upkeep, but most of the cost is supposed to fall to local government. In St. Bernard Parish, voters have twice voted against raising their taxes to pay for better hurricane protection.
"We're talking about $5 a month to the average taxpayer. That's a six-pack. That's a pound of crawfish in April," Estopinal says, frustration evident in his voice. "This is a country that's run by the citizens. The citizens decide they don't want to have flood protection, then we're not going to have flood protection."
He doesn't really mean no flood protection for St. Bernard, he just means without proper funding it won't be as effective.
"Flood protection" is a loaded term. The Army Corps of Engineers prefers to call it a "risk reduction system." The new system is designed to withstand a 100-year hurricane or a storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring each year, and to significantly reduce flooding from a 500-year cyclone.
"We changed that lexicon after Hurricane Katrina because we didn't want the public to be deluded into thinking that they were protected, that they're safe, that once we have a system that was complete they were relieved from any risk of flooding," says Mike Park, the Corps' chief of operations in New Orleans.
In the years since the storm, language has become important. Scientific studies have largely laid blame for the failed flood walls with the Corps that designed them. Sandy Rosenthal, founder and chief agitator of the grass-roots group, levees.org, is writing a forthcoming book titled Don't Call It Katrina.
"If you open the pages of the book you never ever even once see the word that starts with a K," she says. "And it is my hope that when anyone talks about the flooding of New Orleans that it's similar to the Titanic. When anyone talks about the Titanic 100 years ago, nobody talks about the iceberg. The iceberg, like a hurricane, exposed human mistakes and human arrogance."
Rosenthal suggests a more apt name for the calamity that befell her city: the federal flood.
Whatever you call it, an NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted this year reveals that two-thirds of New Orleans residents surveyed are "somewhat" or "very worried" that another hurricane will hit the area and cause similar or worse damage than Katrina.
Singer Irma Thomas, known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, would not be among them.
"Why, now in my 70s, why should I be that concerned about levees?" she says. "I mean, life goes on."
After Katrina, 5 feet of fetid water sat in Thomas' home in New Orleans East for three weeks, destroying everything. She hopes the expensive new levee system holds back the water better than the old levees did, but she continues: "When you move to New Orleans, you know it's below sea level, you know it's like a fishbowl, and you know the possibilities." She concludes with a laugh, "So you make up your mind that this is where you want to live."
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