One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver– not aloud, but to himself–that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey. ~ Mark Twain
Continuing the theme of hurricanes and history, I was thinking about how the levee system in New Orleans got started in the first place. I’ve read in various places that the New Orleans levee project, managed and mostly built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, is the worst public works project in the history of the country, the worst engineering disaster in our history, and even the best example of government inefficiency and waste. Probably each of those statements is true.
I’ll admit I’m a bit biased against the Corps. Many years ago I read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and was shocked to learn how the Corps ran around the western US damming every river they could find, in many cases when dams weren’t necessary. I was also surprised to learn about the greed and corruption that swirled around huge dam and civil engineering projects. I became even more biased after actually working on a Corps project last year, one of the most wasteful projects I’ve ever encountered (I saw first-hand huge amounts of waste and dysfunction within the agency). It didn’t help that the head honcho of the project I was working on got arrested in a $20 million bribery and kickback scheme.
But I digress.
People have long called the long, winding, muddy river bisecting our country the Mighty Mississippi. That’s what it is. The very first settlers of the low-lying city of New Orleans built small and simple levees to protect their homes from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River lurking right around the corner. The first levees were small, only about three feet high, but they weren’t effective when faced with real floods. When Louisiana became a state, residents had already build levees to protect hundreds of miles of the city.
In the mid-1800s, flood control was turned over the the Corps, and they started studying how to best protect the city. Not everyone thought that building more levees was a good idea:
The first study was done by an engineer named Charles Ellet Jr., whose study produced some startling conclusions. His report to Congress attributed the increase of flooding in the Mississippi River Basin to four major developments, including:
“The extension of the levees along the borders of the Mississippi, and of its tributaries and outlets, by means of which the water that was formerly allowed to spread over many thousand square miles of low lands is becoming more and more confined to the immediate channel of the river, and is therefore, compelled to rise higher and flow faster, until, under the increased power of the current, it may have time to excavate a wider and deeper trench to give vent to the increased volume which it conveys.”
Ellet also mentioned the effects of increased cultivation, manmade cutoffs/shortcuts, and the lengthening of the delta all of which will increase the probability and magnitude of floods. He concluded that the flooding problem would worsen with time as the Mississippi Basin becomes more settled.
The Corps ignored him and proceeded on with the levee plan, not just in New Orleans and the Louisiana Delta, but all up and down the Mississippi River.
The modern levee system actually started out as a noble idea, a way to try to make life better for people living and working along the water. The first great challenge to the idea of levees providing bombproof protection against the wrath of flood water was the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. The flood, the worst in United States history, was devastating to all of the states along the Mississippi river. Although an elaborate levee system had been constructed up and down the river, the levees failed, resulting in death and destruction across the region.
The flood inundated 16,470,627 acres (about 26,000 square miles) in 170 counties in seven states, driving an estimated 931,159 people from their homes. The Mississippi River remained at flood stage for a record 153 days. The flood caused more than $400,000,000 in losses. 92,431 businesses were damaged and 162,017 homes flooded. According to various estimates, there were between 250 and 500 deaths.
In all fairness to the people who planned and built the levees, the flooding that year was really historic. On April 15, 1927, 15 inches of rain fell in New Orleans in 18 hours. The pumps that usually drained the city were overwhelmed and the levees actually trapped the rain water in the city. Four feet of water flooded portions of the city, and city leaders came up with a plan to save the city from additional flooding by blasting a hole in a levee closer to the Gulf to drain the area. Of course, that plan sacrificed the land and homes of many of the area’s lower income residents.
It’s hard to see see how engineers back then could have adequately planned for such a devastating flood event. Nashville, TN flooded, and the water level was even higher than the huge and devastating flood in 2010, another flood that was unexpected and uncontrollable.
One interesting note is the Great Flood Herbert Hoover came to national prominence as a direct result of the flood. He was serving as Commerce Secretary and headed up flood relief efforts. He did a fine job and his success helped propel him into the presidency, just in time for the Great Depression.
After the Great Flood, the Corps was once again tasked with whipping the levee system into shape and making sure the region would be protected from future extreme flooding events, and presumably hurricanes. But again, in 1965, Hurricane Betsy flooded the city. After Betsy, another major push started to beef up the levee system. At this point in time, engineers had access to huge technological and engineering advances, but the Corps failed to use the most recent technology and best flood control methods. Instead, the New Orleans flood control system, and the newly established Hurricane Protection Project, fell into the trap of bureaucracy and inefficiency.
Over the decades, work continued on the levee system, but it was a disjointed spidery network of different agencies and different standards. In fact, nobody really knew what standard the levees should follow. What type of flood should they withstand? What hurricane strength and storm surge level should the system prepare for? What kinds of engineering models should be used to test the existing system and determine where improvements could help? Little to none of those questions were asked or answered. And in the end, we know the results of this disjointed and haphazard flood planning system: hurricane Katrina.
Analysis after Hurricane Katrina breached the levee system in 50 places showed that the entire flood control management chain was deeply flawed. The system was dysfunctional and ineffective. Too many jurisdictions had control over tiny parts of pieces of the flood control system and no one agency or person was really in charge. Local governments also made really bad decisions about land use, in some cases allowing homes to be built 10 feet below sea level. In addition, construction was haphazard, sometimes with levees more than two feet lower than designed. Some levees themselves were also poorly engineered, poorly built, and badly managed.The entire levee system was incomplete, not well built, and not likely to really protect the city from a major flood.
The very idea that such a bad engineering project could take place in one of the cities most vulnerable to flooding is really pretty shocking. Many reports pointed out the errors that agencies made, and suggested ways to fix the problems. I personally hoped that the disaster would lead to a big shakeup in the Corps of Engineers and real reform. That didn’t happen. Instead, the Corps was left pretty much alone and they’ve since built $14.5 billion worth of new flood protections in and around New Orleans. Luckily, the new flood control system seem to be much improved and much better engineered. Strangely, the new system is only designed to withstand a category 3 hurricane (Huh? Hurricane Katrina was briefly a category 5). Luckily, the hurricane currently barreling towards the city is weaker than Katrina and the levees should perform well. Hopefully. But what happens when a bigger storm hits the city one day?
On August 29, 2005, a federal floodwall atop a levee on the 17th Street Canal, the largest and most important drainage canal for the city, gave way here causing flooding that killed hundreds. This breach was one of 50 ruptures in the federal Flood Protection System that occurred that day. In 2008, the US District Court placed responsibility for this floodwall’s collapse squarely on the US Army Corps of Engineers; however, the agency is protected from financial liability in the Flood Control Act of 1928.
I’m sending good thoughts to all of the people along the Gulf coast who will encounter one more hurricane late tonight.
Sources and Related Information:
- Historic Background on the New Orleans Levee System (includes fabulous old photos)
- What’s the History of Levees in New Orleans?
- The New Orleans Levees: The Worst Engineering Catastrophe in US History: What Went Wrong and Why
- US Army Corps of Engineers: 100 year protection
- A Dutch Perspective on Coastal Louisiana Flood Risk Reduction
- The Mississippi Levee System and the Old River Control Structure