Hydrologists, engineers, politicians and bureaucrats all had reason to celebrate a job well done.
The mood was buoyant when speeches were delivered and the traditional ribbon was cut at the 17th Street Canal pumping station last week.
It had taken 13 years and $14.5 billion, but the New Orleans metro area was finally encircled by state-of-the-art flood defenses just in time for the 2018 hurricane season.
There are two ways to react to these developments. You can take a pitcher of lemonade out to the porch and kick back without a care in the world. Or you can mix yourself a strong one and make sure there's an ax and inflatable dinghy in the attic. The latter course is recommended.
This is not a scientific conclusion and is not informed by a mastery of flood-control technology. But who needs it? A grasp of basic English is enough to raise the alarm. Read the ratings assigned to our levees and floodwalls after their annual inspections by the Corps of Engineers, and you'll be out there buying survivalist equipment pronto. Those newly installed pumps and floodgates may prove of limited value if the canal network is leaking all over town.
You may remember, when Katrina struck, seeing pictures online contrasting whizbang Dutch and English flood barriers with flimsy fences drooping atop the banks lining the New Orleans canals. You will no doubt assume that much has changed since then.
Indeed it has. Believe it or not, standards have slipped. In the years leading up to Katrina all the New Orleans-area levees and floodwalls were rated “outstanding” or “acceptable,” yet more evidence that much of the death and destruction must be laid at the door of our lackadaisical Corps of Engineers. But the Corps has concluded that the levee system had so deteriorated that every section of it was no more than “minimally acceptable” by 2016. Given the Corps' historically low standards, this presumably means each of us has an even chance of being drowned. After all, when the Corps gave the levees a seal of approval, the death toll was close to 2,000. There ought to be a run on axes down at the hardware store.
It is not because the Corps is keen for the public to know what is going on that the condition of the levees has come to light. It happened because the watchdog group Levees.org filed a freedom of information request. Your tax dollars are still at work to keep you in the dark, however. The Corps will not release the full reports of the levee inspections.
“The metro area now has the most robust flood defense system it has ever had,” Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East President Joe Hassinger said last week, which, given its cost, is as it should be. But that is not necessarily reassuring either, for the system was only designed to withstand a 100-year storm. We could probably make do with that if 100-year storms only came around, say, once a century, but most of us will probably live long enough to see several of them. It's almost enough to make you believe in climate change.
If our brand-new levee system is perfectly maintained, and various Corps reports suggest that is hasn't been, another Katrina may still overwhelm it. The surge in 2005 was in the 400-year class on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, 250 in New Orleans. The pre-Katrina system was supposed to handle a 300-400 year storm. Although it obviously was not as strong as advertised, at least we set our sights higher when Congress authorized its construction in 1965. To settle for a 100-year standard is to admit that a devastating hurricane is in our future for sure.
But this is evidently the best system we can afford. The cost of keeping it in good repair will overstretch local government budgets too, so the risk of a levee breach in a decent storm will be high. The completion of the system was no doubt worth a certain amount of hoopla, but it's a fact of life that sooner or later it will rain on any parade in Louisiana.
Email James Gill at Gill1047@bellsouth.net.