Lessons from the water line
Human error produced the New Orleans flood — huge flaws in Mississippi River levee projects built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and environmental negligence by government and oil companies that caused wetlands south of the city to erode. The lost wetlands gave tidal waves an open alley to the city. But the dynamics of this failure are national in scope.
"The cost of a collapsing coast is one of fundamental survival," says Mark Davis, director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana in Baton Rouge, a group that has worked on the issue for years. "What happened last year was also the failure of a value system. We assumed we had tamed the forces of nature. We need to understand that if we want there to be a New Orleans, or a Los Angeles, or a Miami, or a New York, 500 years from now, we can't assume they'll be there. We have to plan for them to be there. That's why the rise in sea levels and freshwater management are so extraordinary."
As Davis runs down a list of other cities — including San Francisco, Orlando and Atlanta — where rapid growth has overwhelmed environmental-defense planning, it is worth noting that FEMA considers New Orleans, Miami and New York as the cities most vulnerable to hurricane disasters. More than a third of the 167 hurricanes that struck America in the last century hit Florida. Miami is about 3 feet above sea level, with a vast wetlands complex to the west. Beachfront development and a building boom have packed the area with people. If the ocean levels continue to rise, the area's marshy buffer won't be enough to halt a massive flood. That is what happened to New Orleans.
In the 24 hours before Katrina made landfall, the storm doubled in size, blanketing waters "of the Gulf equal in area to California," report John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein in their new book, Path of Destruction. As the Category 5 storm with 175 mph winds neared Louisiana, winds dropped to 127 mph, a Category 3 level, still strong enough to produce huge waves.
Katrina hit early on Monday, Aug. 29. The eye flattened the coastal town of Buras, sending thunderous waves across villages and hamlets south of the city, tossing cars and boats onto trees and roofs. Winds roared through Lake Borgne, pushing waves 20 feet high. The giant water sheets rolled toward New Orleans East on a passageway between man-made canals. One side of the vast lane straddles a levee along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway; the other levee hugs the eastern side of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, known locally as MR-GO (pronounced, without a trace of irony, "mister go").
"The funnel," where the Intracoastal and the MR-GO meet, sent water throttling between and over the tops of those levees and into the city as well as nearby St. Bernard Parish — the end result of decades of dredging by the Corps of Engineers. Building MR-GO destroyed 20,000 acres of marshland in the 1960s. Junior Rodriguez, the barrel-chested president of St. Bernard Parish, railed against MR-GO for years. As the Corps dug the alternate shipping lane for moving cargo from the Mississippi to the Gulf, the dredging opened an artery 500 feet wide. MR-GO was finished in 1963.
In 2001, as Christopher Hallowell wrote in Holding Back the Sea, a prescient book on wetlands loss: "Erosion from ships and storms has gouged it 2000 feet wide and made it a freeway to New Orleans for any hurricane that happens to come from the right direction." Hallowell saw the shape of things to come. "The surrounding marsh, now vulnerable to storms and salt water, has all but died ... along with 40,000 acres of mature cypress trees. Now, storm surges can invade the marsh through the straight-arrow channel and smash into New Orleans."
The smashing happened before, in 1965, when Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans. Kenneth Ferdinand, an African-American real estate investor and urban planner, grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, just across the Orleans Parish line from St. Bernard. In recent years, he sat in regional planning meetings with Rodriguez, sharing his hostility to MR-GO. Betsy's surging waters ramped up MR-GO, burrowing into the levee along the Industrial Canal, which divides the Ninth Ward into upper and lower sections. When the Industrial Canal levee broke in '65, a large swath of the Lower Ninth was inundated, drowning 81 people. Ferdinand went into his grandfather's house to claim his body after Betsy. "I've seen this catastrophe twice in my lifetime," says Ferdinand. "The difference between Betsy and Katrina is that the flooding was much worse. And, Katrina wrecked those communities below the Lower Nine"—St. Bernard, and further south, Plaquemines Parish.