Yesterday’s New Orleans Times Picayune carried a front page story—fittingly, I guess, on the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina—about the Army Corps of Engineers’ new rating systems for the country’s levees.  The report gave a “near failing grade to New Orleans area levees,” despite the $10-billion effort to rebuild them after Katrina. The levees are designed to withstand surges from a “100-year hurricane,” or a storm with a one-percent chance of happening in any given year. For storms the Corps described as “500-year events,” all bets are apparently off. “Larger events, however, would cause flooding,” the piece stated, rather bloodlessly. “Reviewers estimated those events could kill as much of 3 percent of the area’s population, and inundate as many as 191,180 structures, resulting in $47.7 billion in damage.”

As a new transplant to the city, skittishly checking weather reports for any and all tropical depressions forming in the Gulf, my response? No kidding.

Katrina, after all, wasn’t a “500-year event.” It was a Category 3 hurricane. Bigger storms might hit the city in the future, when as the Times Picayune correctly pointed out sea levels are likely to be significantly higher. My problem with the Army Corps of Engineers’ report isn’t with its dire predictions. (Dealing with the specter of hurricanes is part of the bargain you strike living here; it’s a lot like Bay Area residents and the so-called “Big One”.) The Corps doesn’t seem to recognize—at least, not publicly—that its 100 year-plus policy of taming the Mississippi River by brute force might need a rethink. And this isn’t just a local issue. Towns and cities up and down the Mississippi face the same threat. Building higher walls, in the end, won’t solve the problem. As a number of landscape architects have been telling us for a while, we might have to let some of the water in, to keep the rest of it out.

To read the Times Picayune story, click here.

Recent Metropolis blog post about the Mississippi.

Metropolis article – “What’s Next

Q&A with Dutch water engineer, Jan H. de Jager.

Categories: Cities