The Storm Next Time: How Safe is New Orleans?

120828073556-katrina-ann-01-horizontal-large-galleryNew Orleans   President Obama announced that he is visiting New Orleans on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Reportedly he wants to use the event to underline his climate change initiatives. The local papers are full of discussion about what needs to be done with many reviving the original President George W. Bush promise for 500-year storm protection. The cost is guesstimated at $100 billion. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says “let’s go!” Congress has repeatedly said, “no go!”

The question continues to be “How Safe is New Orleans?” The New Orleans on-line news service, The Lens, convened a question and answer session with Dr. Paul Kemp, a geologist and oceanographer connected to Louisiana State University who was involved in the inspection of the levees after the storm, the now-closed Hurricane Center at LSU, and a controversial commissioner on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, moderated by award winning reporter, Bob Marshall. To summarize the answer in one word from the experts: maybe.

This was not a crowd pleasing response, partially due to all of the “ifs, ands, and buts”, but let’s look at what Dr. Kemp offered. The levee system and the new gates leave the city better protected than it was at the storm. Kemp minced no words, saying that at the storm, there was “no system,” but an unfinished dirt patchwork. Now, he claims the pieces are put together, “armor,” meaning plastic sealing both sides of the levee is being added, and there’s an understanding that there has to be progress every day to maintain and advance the system.

Many were not assured. Saying something requires daily attention in the city “that care forgot” is a stretch. And, so is money in this broke ass community. St. Bernard Parish below New Orleans is already trying to scrimp on their share and they are often the first place on a storm’s path. Kemp under questioning said a minimum maintenance budget is $15 million, but no one really knows what the real costs are to maintain a multi-billion dollar system. Furthermore Kemp was clear that budget was not in hand, and repeated the need to keep improving daily or protection would be eroding.

Marshall’s questions were tinged with skepticism. In his introductory remarks he was clear that the minimal requirements to qualify homeowners for the national flood insurance program drove the levee protection plan, not the future safety of the residents. Metaphor mayhem broke out. Homeowners were reminded that they had fire insurance not to stop a fire, but to rebuild what they could after a fire and that this situation was similarly not about prevention, but potentially rebuilding. We needed a well-built third story house for protection and what we had might have is a decent one story dwelling.

Kemp on the other hand was more scientist than advocate or politician which was reassuring. Unfortunately most of the science and technology is rapidly developing and unsteady so there’s no solid ground there. He clarified the misconceptions on storm surge articulately as not one 20-foot wall of water but a bulge that rose to a level and then fell with the task being to prevent the highest crest from hitting the levee protection.

Bottom line Kemp argued that no matter the storm, if it were just a matter of over-topping the levees whether five feet or whatever, the city would survive. There would be water in the streets and low lying areas but it would run in and out, and be similar to terrible New Orleans thunderstorms. There was a big “if” though constantly repeated: if the levees are not breached.

The real battle of New Orleans is being fought now on whether or not everything is being done to prevent the levees from being breached and identifying the most vulnerable spots and gaps, then shoring and closing them. There lies the answer to the question, “is New Orleans safe?”

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Please enjoy Widespread Panic’s Steven’s Cat.

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