Remembering Hurricane Katrina

September 4, 2015
Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: CSX Railroad to Michoud Canal Levee
Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: CSX Railroad to Michoud Canal Levee

The 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina prompted the New Orleans community and the nation to reflect on the tragic events of Aug. 29, 2005. The tragedy was an example of the important role infrastructure plays in protecting a community’s health, welfare and public safety. It also elevated the discussion of the need to design and build more resilient infrastructure. With so many human lives lost in the tragedy 10 years ago, one of the saddest remembrances is that some of that pain could have been avoided if the warnings by many groups, including ASCE, were acted upon sooner.

Before Congress on July 15, 2004, Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin spoke ominous and foretelling words about how if a category four hurricane hit New Orleans, “it [would] be inundated [with] 27 feet of water.” That was one year before Hurricane Katrina inundated the Louisiana coast, killing more than 1,800 people and causing $81 billion in property damage.

But Rep. Tauzin wasn’t the only one sounding the alarm about Louisiana’s vulnerability to a major hurricane. In June 2003, the American Society of Civil Engineers featured a cover story in its Civil Engineering magazine warning that it was only a matter of time before a hurricane the magnitude of Katrina would likely decimate the New Orleans area. Why was no one listening?

In October 2007, ASCE issued a report titled The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System: What Went Wrong and Why? that analyzed the events leading to the levee failures in New Orleans. The conclusion? It was a catastrophic storm due to multiple factors including failure to design as a system, levee design flaws, failure to understand and communicate the risks, poor land use decisions and prolonged construction due to infrastructure underfunding.

But as Super Storm Sandy demonstrated in October 2012, this isn’t just a Louisiana problem. It’s a national problem, and every coastal community is vulnerable. So what lessons have we learned? Has America’s infrastructure become more resilient after these historic catastrophes and would coastal cities like Houston, Tampa or Miami fare any better?

ASCE’s Managing Flood Risk report released after Super Storm Sandy revealed some sobering facts. There is still no cohesive vision of how the nation should organize or coordinate to reduce flood risk. Despite the destruction and loss of life caused by Katrina and Sandy, the nation is still unprepared and unaware of the magnitude of flood risk, and the nation’s flood management infrastructure – dams and levees – received a D and D- respectively in ASCE’s 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

Our flood risk report was an urgent call to lawmakers at all levels of government to change national flood risk management policies and provide desperately needed funding to rehabilitate America’s dams and levees.

Clearly, Congress decided to hit the snooze button. It took nearly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina and two years after Super Storm Sandy before federal lawmakers finally passed legislation to create a National Levee Safety Program. Sadly, Congress has not appropriated any new federal funding since the program’s creation in 2014.

Certainly there have been considerable improvements in hurricane protection and flood control systems since Katrina. In 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed work on a series of projects that comprise the $14.5 billion federal investment in a hurricane and storm risk reduction system outside of New Orleans. Yet despite this significant achievement, Louisiana’s 50-year master plan to rebuild and protect its coastal areas is still woefully underfunded.

And Louisiana isn’t alone. All coastal areas including Texas, Florida and New York are susceptible to severe flooding from hurricanes, and are even more unprepared and equally underfunded.

As a nation we must identify and communicate flood risks to those in harm’s way, and provide federal, state and local resources to fund our nation’s flood infrastructure to protect the lives and livelihood of Americans living in coastal areas from the next Katrina.

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