The Year of Moving Forward

The Year of Moving Forward
At our 4 person wedding reception in DC

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lower Ninth Ward, Part 4, Levees

To read the previous installment in the series, Lower Ninth Ward, Part 3, Industrial Canal, click here.

There is nothing natural about “natural disasters.” In most cases. A tornado attracts little attention after the fact if it does not damage structures made by humans or cause human injuries or death. The recent California earthquake was only reported as it related to the effects on humans and our structures.

A hurricane churning across the Gulf of Mexico is affecting ocean life and the ecology of the sea, but do we really hear about it? One exception, we did learn of the affect that hurricane Katrina had on hummingbirds and other birds. In fact, here is a map showing the important bird areas (IBA) affected by the storm, from Birder's World Magazine.

1) Lake Pontchartrain Causeway2) Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge3) Bienville National Forest4) Breton National Wildlife Refuge5) Gulf Islands National Seashore6) Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge7) Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge8) De Soto National Forest9) Gulf Coast Least Tern colony 10) Lower Pascagoula River preserves11) Dauphin Island 12) Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge13) Dry Tortugas National Park14) Everglades National Park

But I digress.

My point is, the effect on nature by a hurricane like Katrina is enormous, but the effects on man are more reportable.

Furthermore, the flooding of New Orleans, the suffering endured by hundreds of thousands, was not an act of God, as some would say, but an act of man, if for no other reason that man built the city and the levees, and did not build them in such a way as to withstand the force of nature.

I mean, a lot of water produces a lot of pressure, due to the natural law of gravity, and this pressure exerted a force greater than the resistance of the wall or levee that man created.

As explained by Heidi Cullen on Forecast Earth (The Weather Channel) the other day, a levee failure can occur in one of two ways. One is overtopping, where the waters rise higher than the levee and it overflows. This did not happen in New Orleans. The other is saturation where the soil that makes up the levee absorbs so much water that it becomes weakened, too weak to withstand the pressure of the water and a path is forced through or under the levee and water can begin to “boil” up from the ground on the other side. The levee can actually rupture and collapse, allowing a flood of water to destroy what lies in its path.

In 2006 the Army Corp of Engineers, the group responsible for the levees, declared that the levees were restored to pre-Katrina levels. OK, but does that make anyone feel good?

The Corp has admitted to fundamental engineering mistakes, explained here.

Now we are supposed to feel comfortable about placing the safety of New Orleans in the hands of the Army Corp of Engineers?

Books have been written, The Storm, by Ivor van Heerden, is one that lays out why the levees failed, what was known beforehand, and how the levees could be restored and wetlands protected in ways that would provide for Category 5 hurricane protection. Van Heerden is the co-founder and deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes. is demanding a third party investigation of the failure of the levees in New Orleans which they call the 8/29 Investigation, for this reason (from their web site).
  • The official levee investigation, the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) was managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the same agency responsible for the flood protection's performance - a clear conflict of interest.
  • Two significant non-governmental levee analysis teams, the Independent Levee Investigation Team and Team- Louisiana have yielded results that conflict with the IPET in five (5) of seven (7) of the major levee failure mechanisms including the Industrial Canal breach.
  • An ethics panel led by retired Congressman Sherwood Boehlert R-NY is underway to examine allegations that the American Society of Civil Engineers covered up engineering mistakes, downplayed the need to alter building standards, and used investigations including the one after Katrina to protect engineers and government agencies from lawsuits. As reported in the Associated Press, the panel was expected to issue a report by April, but has delayed the report until September 5, 2008.

    Here a Lower Ninth Ward resident shows her replacement home, the devestated area around and expresses her hope for the 8/29 investigation.

Bessemer Opinions says support this effort. It is not just about the future of New Orleans, there are levees throughout the country that need to be evaluated and/or strengthened.

In my next segment, I will venture out of the Lower Ninth Ward and into the swamp. Read part 5 here.

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