Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of posts on the anniversary of the historic flood in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Get links to other installments here.


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Five years ago today, New Orleans realized it had not gotten off rather easily from Hurricane Katrina. Levees, long the subject of speculation and concern, were breaching around the city, overwhelmed by the storm surge barreling down the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), a poorly-conceived canal the funneled water right into the Crescent City at an alarming rate. Though many still believe it was the hurricane itself that destroyed the city, the truth is it was a series of catastrophic decisions by the Army Corps of Engineers that led to the largest engineering failure our country has ever seen. And unprecedented destruction, suffering and death – all of which could have been lessened (at least) if not totally avoided.

Along with Ivor van Heerden (former director of the LSU Hurricane Center), Bob Bea (rightBeaphoto_new) has been an  outspoken critic of the Corps and everyone else involved in creating and managing New Orleans’ ill-equipped flood protection and water management systems. Though van Heerden was removed from his post at LSU in part because of his advocacy (chronicled here in the New York Times), Bea continues to hold the authorities accountable as a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC-Berkeley. (Read his call for an 8/29 commission
here). Both men have prominent roles in Harry Shearer's marvelous documentary, The Big Uneasy. I first interviewed Bea in 2007 for an article on levees in Developer magazine in 2006. I checked in with Bea last week to get his view on the situation in New Orleans five years on:

Q: How would you describe the condition of New Orleans' levees today?
A: There has been some good progress on improving the existing hurricane flood protection system. The best examples are the flood gates and pump stations at the Pontchartrain end of the drainage canals and also the MR-GO/Gulf Intracoastal Water Way closure and gates. There has been some good progress on improving the organizational aspects. The best example is the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East. There have been marginal improvements in the Corps of Engineers -- some improvements in engineering methods, not enough improvements in the general management processes.

Q: How does that compare to pre-Katrina?
A: The flood protection system is a system in name only. It remains as it was before Katrina: a patchwork quilt of different pieces and projects, some strong, some not so strong. There still is no evidence of a comprehensive systems approach. It’s still project by project. Sometimes, I don’t know what we are thinking. Our infrastructure continues to tell us it can not do what we want it to do. It will fail when challenged. And what do we do? Patch it and ignore it until we have the next disaster.

Q: Why?
A: The general level of flood protection is not sufficient for the metropolitan area. The so-called "100-year protection", a FEMA requirement to obtain flood insurance, is not acceptable. All existing guidelines for acceptable flood protection for high-consequence areas is in excess of "1,000-year protection". There seems to be no social or political will to achieve the greater levels of protection. In addition, the Factors of Safety being used in the so called "100-year protection" are not adequate, which means the promised 100-year protection is not what was promised -- again. The same thing happened after Hurricane Betsy. The promised 200- to 300-year protection, authorized by Congress, failed when challenged by 50-year conditions.

Q: What's the most important thing people should know about the New Orleans levees today?

A: If the system were challenged this year by "100-year" hurricane conditions, my assessment is that there would be repeated unacceptable breaching in the system. Water will find the 'weak links' in this chain-type system composed of new and old links.

Before ending the interview, Bea added a few points off-the-cuff:

  • Due recognition isn’t given to what has been happening for the past several 100 years: sea levels are rising, ground is settling or subsiding and storm intensities are increasing again. The existing system isn’t designed to – and maintenance provisions not created to -- accommodate these inevitable changes.
  • It doesn’t appear that authorities are enhancing natural protective features -- wetlands, dense grass cover for earth levees, vegetation protection – and engineered protective features like levees and flood walls. “I do not see sufficient attention given to 'sustainability’,” he noted. “There’s insufficient evidence that we are only developing areas that can and will be adequately protected, tied to the levels of protection and local building codes and land development processes.”
  • Evacuation, rescue, and recovery operations and processes haven’t been improved. “If we had a repeat of the breaching of the levees today,” he predicts grimly, “I think we would have the same miserable pictures to watch on TV again.”


For more information on the levee failures, check out these resources:

NOVA's Storm that Drowned a City

Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Jed Horne's Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City

Jeremy Levitt & Matthew Whitaker's Hurricane Katrina: America's Unnatural Disaster

The Institute for Southern Studies' report Five Years After Katrina, Army Corps Still Dragging Its Feet on Reforms