They are so much a part of our daily lives in Louisiana that we take levees for granted, or did, until breaches in the structures resulted in a flooded greater New Orleans 15 years ago.
Levees are important. That is why the rebuilding of the levee system around the city has been so critical, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that is nearing completion.
The local levee-reconstruction effort cost about $14.6 billion, and its last steps — installing fabric-mat “armor” on the protected side of earthen levees to reduce erosion in the event of overtopping — is expected to be completed by 2022.
But even that is not enough: The Corps estimates that more will need to be spent over the coming decades to raise levee heights. Insurers also worry about the damage that future hurricanes might bring, even as the new system is improved.
In Louisiana, we suffer from a double-whammy of climate change and soil subsidence. That’s why the national commitment to the greater New Orleans levee systems was an irreplaceable investment in the region’s future and in our state’s contribution to America.
But the seas continue to rise and our Mississippi Delta soil subsides. That means that Louisiana’s issues with safety are hardly alone. The Corps has levees across the nation, according to data unearthed by Sandy Rosenthal, of Levees.org.
Across the nation, today’s climate crisis requires continuing investments against extreme weather and rising sea levels. That’s as true in New York City or the Sacramento River valley in California as it is in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
For us in Louisiana, it means that we have to continue — if not increase — vigilance on the maintenance of levees, from the Red River Valley down to the coast.
Further, coastal protection and restoration is an absolutely vital first line of defense against rising seas and increasingly damaging storms.
The failure of Corps-built levees in 2005 under the impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita made the agency less than popular, almost as bad as Michael Brown’s hapless Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But the fact remains that America’s national investment in management of water and storms is critical not only to our state but to many others.
For us in Louisiana, that means there is more competition for scarce federal resources. If there is a silver lining in the climate crisis, it is that nationally and internationally it is recognized that investment in water resource management is going to be needed, in greater amounts, over the coming decades.