Hurricane preparedness in New Orleans has been an issue since the city's early settlement because of the city's location.
New Orleans was built on a delta marsh. Unlike the first two centuries of its existence, today, a little less than half of the modern city sits below sea level. The city is surrounded by the Mississippi River to the south, Lake Pontchartrain to the north, and Lake Borgne to the east.
The parts of New Orleans and the surrounding communities first settled in the colonial era through the 19th century were and still are above sea level. However flooding was long a threat, from the periodic high waters of the Mississippi and more occasional severe storms which would push the waters of Lake Pontchartrain into settled areas. Construction of the levees along the River began soon after the city was founded, and more extensive river levees were built as the city grew. These earthen barriers were originally erected to prevent damage caused by seasonal flooding. On the lakeside, much of the land was undeveloped swamp and only small levees were constructed in the 19th century.
1794 was perhaps as dreadful a year as the city of New Orleans ever experienced, as it was hit by two hurricanes in addition to a major fire.
1915: The New Orleans Hurricane of 1915 or as it was commonly called locally "The Great Storm of 1915" struck with more wind damage than the 1909 storm. Flooding was more limited in scope and duration due to improved drainage pumping. However Lake Pontchartrain rose to a higher level than previously recorded, overtopping some of the back levees. The Sewage and Water Board recommended higher levees to protect the city from flooding on the Lake side.
A much larger project to build up levees along the lake and extend the shoreline out by dredging began in 1927. As the city grew, there was increased pressure to develop lower areas. A large system of canals and pumps was constructed to drain the city. Flooding containment efforts until the mid-20th century primarily focused on floods from the Mississippi River.
The 1947 Fort Lauderdale Hurricane hit the New Orleans area. The metro area suffered moderate hurricane wind damage. Flood prevention was largely successful in the city, but there was severe flooding in the new East Jefferson suburbs.
Hurricane Betsy in 1965 alerted a new generation to the threat of major hurricane hits. As radar showed the storm heading for the city, a mandatory evacuation of Eastern New Orleans was declared. The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal channel storm surge into the metro area. A levee failure was responsible for major flooding in Lower 9th Ward.
The heavy flooding caused by Hurricane Betsy brought concerns regarding flooding from hurricanes to the forefront. Betsy resulted in major redesign of levee system. Congress removed responsibility for the local flood protection from the local levee boards and authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to design and construct the flood protection for the maximum anticipated hurricane for the area. (This project was still under construction when the city was hit by Katrina 40 years later.)
The Army Corps of Engineers also designed a Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Barrier to shield the city with flood gates like those that protect the Netherlands from the North Sea. Congress provided funding and construction began in 1971, but work stopped in 1977 when a federal judge ruled, in a suit brought by Save Our Wetlands, that the Corps' environmental impact statement was deficient. In 1985, after nearly a decade of court battles, the Corps scrapped the plan, and decided on reinforcing the city’s levee system instead.
The threat of Hurricane Camille was shown in advance by improvement in radar technology, and much of New Orleans braced for a repeat of Betsy. However instead Camille turned east to hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Hurricane Juan (1985) prompted a large evacuation from the city, but did little damage.
Hurricane Andrew threatened the city in 1992. Clearly a major killer storm that had already devastated parts of South Florida, it prompted the largest evacuation of the city to date. The storm turned west of the city, but prompted re-evaluation of emergency evacuation plans.
Hurricane Georges in 1998 prompted an even larger evacuation. The Louisiana Superdome was opened as a shelter of last resort for those unable to evacuate, with unfortunate consequences as much of the Dome was looted. Highways leaving the city were tied up bumper to bumper, prompting development of the Contraflow lane reversal plan. The evacuation from Greater New Orleans and the nearby Mississippi Coast was the largest evacuation in U.S. history up to that time.
Georges missed the city, but it caused significant storm surge which raised the level of Lake Pontchartrain to the point that the city was saved from major flooding only by the lake levees and floodwalls. There was significant destruction to the areas just outside of the floodwalls, including at Little Woods and at West End near the mouth of the 17th Street Canal.
In early 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), named three major scenarios as being among the most serious threats to the nation: (1) a major hurricane hitting New Orleans, (2) a terrorist attack in New York City, and (3) a large earthquake hitting San Francisco. In 2004, an Army Corps of Engineers study was done on the costs and feasibility of protecting southeast Louisiana from a major Category 5 hurricane, including construction of floodgate structures and raising existing levees. The report also suggested that the chances of a major Category 5 hurricane directly striking New Orleans was a one-in-500 year event.
Follow-on Hurricane Pam workshops were conducted in November/December 2004, July 2005, and August 2005.
The Hurricane Pam scenario and the level of attention that the federal government paid to it were discussed following the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in November and December, 2005.
Hurricane Katrina threatened the city in August 2005. The eye of the huge storm grazed the eastern side of the city, sparing it from the worst of its power. However, due to poorly designed levees and the worst civil engineering failure in United States history, most of the city experienced flooding similar to a direct hit; see: Levee failures in Greater New Orleans, 2005.
There were many predictions of hurricane risk in New Orleans before Katrina.
On August 26 the storm, at one point up to a Category 5, was in the Gulf with a projected to possibly hit New Orleans a few days later. (The previous day the projected path was towards the Florida Panhandle.) On August 27 Mayor Nagin declared a state of emergency and called for a voluntary evacuation. The following day he issued the city's first ever whole-city mandatory evacuation order. A mandatory evacuation order is an extreme measure: the most recent such order in Louisiana occurred when east New Orleans was ordered evacuated in 1965.
There have been various plans to mitigate or prevent catastrophes. The evacuation plans were the most successful. The contraflow worked relatively smoothly, and over 80% of the population succeeded in fleeing the area in advance of the storm. The evacuation no doubt saved thousands of lives. However beyond the evacuation of those willing and able to leave town through their own resources, almost every other aspect of preparedness was found dreadfully wanting.
Like many other cities, New Orleans heavily relied on evacuation in case of a Category 5 storm. The inadequacy of evacuation plans was shown up when no provision was made in time to evacuate the large number of people elderly, disabled, those without cars who could not leave by their own means.
Blame for lack of preparedness has been leveled at all levels of government. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has been criticized for not following the city's evacuation plan which called for the use of school buses to transport disadvantaged and elderly citizens out of the city. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was also criticized for not deploying the Louisiana National Guard sooner, although she did in fact deploy them before the hurricane hit and requested reinforcements from other states. President George W. Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were also criticized for failures on the federal level as well as with his leadership role. FEMA chief Michael D. Brown admitted on the 1 year anniversary of landfall that "There was no plan" and claimed that in the immediate aftermath of the disaster White House officials told him to lie to put a more positive spin on the Federal response.
The designation by the city of the Louisiana Superdome as the "shelter of last resort" proved poor. It did not meet the safety standards required for a Red Cross shelter and thus it was not staffed by them or the Salvation Army. Thousands were trapped inside it as the area around it flooded and part of the roof blew off. Provisions for food and water were just barely adequate; sanitation, medical, and crowd control did not achieve that level.
Under the National Response Plan, disaster planning is first and foremost a local government responsibility. On the day after the Hurricane, Michael Chertoff invoked the National Response Plan, transferring emergency authority to the Department of Homeland Security.
Civil order broke down, infrastructure failed, and some 80% of the city flooded. A few government responders, including Coast Guard helicopters and Louisiana Fisheries & Wildlife Boats, responded early and worked hard to save lives of people stranded in the flooding, but their numbers were inadequate for the scope of the disaster. Private volunteers with boats assisted with rescue in great numbers, but significant Federal response was largely absent until 5 days after the disaster.
The next major hurricane threat to the city after Katrina came less than a month later, as Hurricane Rita headed towards the Gulf Coast as the city was still in ruins. Repopulation of some parts of the city had just begun when it was canceled and the city orded re-evacuated. The levee system again failed, re-flooding low-lying portions of the city such as the Lower Ninth Ward.
Making landfall in Louisiana in late August 2008 as a category two hurricane, Hurricane Gustav was the first to put large scale preparations in motion, although the storm was still in Caribbean on the third anniversary of Katrina. Locals were warned to prepare for a possible evacuation of the city and additional National Guard units were called out, and a state of emergency was declared. Soon afterwards, 1.9 million people were evacuated from southern Louisiana, including 200,000 from the City of New Orleans. Contraflow lanes were again initiated. Forty-three deaths occured in Louisiana as a result of the storm.
Starting in 2003, federal spending on the Southeast Louisiana Project was substantially reduced. Lt. General Carl Strock, Chief of Engineers at the Army Corps of Engineers, said that, "at the time that these levees were designed and constructed, it was felt that that was an adequate level given the probability of an event like this occurring." Strock also said that he did not believed that funding levels contributed to the disaster, commenting that, "the intensity of this storm simply exceeded the design capacity of this levee." Strock also told reporters that the Corps of Engineers, "had a 200- or 300-year level of protection. That means that an event that we were protecting from might be exceeded every 200 or 300 years.
From 2001 through 2005, the Bush administration battled with Congress to cut a total of approximately 67% from the budgetary requests from the Army Corps of Engineers for levee augmentation projects in the New Orleans area, but ultimately settled with Congress on a 50% cut in these budgetary requests. In February 2004, Naomi stated that, "I've got at least six levee construction contracts (in the New Orleans area where funding has been cut) that need to be done to raise the levee protection back to where it should be (because of settling). Right now I owe my contractors about $5 Million. And we're going to have to pay them interest.
Even as the Bush administration was cutting the Army Corps of Engineers budget, many were criticizing the administration for not cutting the budget more. The New York Times, in particular, published several editorials criticizing the large size of the $17 Billion Corps budget, and called for the Senate to cut, "pork," in S. 728, which would have provided $512 Million in funding for hurricane protection projects in southern Louisiana.
Just after Hurricane Katrina hit, there was some concern expressed that government officials have placed an overemphasis on disaster recovery, while neglecting the process of pre-planning and preparation.
In the 17 months following Katrina, five investigations were carried out. The only federally ordered study was sponsored and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Two major independent studies were done by the University of California at Berkeley and the Louisiana State University. Two minor studies were done by FEMA and the insurance industry. All five studies basically agree on the engineering mechanisms of failure.
The failure mechanisms included overtopping of levees and floodwalls by the storm surge, consequential undermining of flood wall foundations or other weakening by water of the wall foundations, and the storm surge pressures exceeding the strength of the floodwalls. In June 2006, a contrite Lt. Gen Carl Strock took responsibility for the failure of metro New Orleans flood protection, calling the system "a system in name only.
As of August 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers planned to spend $6 billion to make sure that by 2010, the city would probably be flooded only once every 100 years. But this would not equal the best levee system in the world, which is in The Netherlands. That system is designed to protect populated areas against anything but a 1-in-10,000-years flood. If the Corps built a 1-in-500-year levee system in New Orleans, Ivan van Heerden, deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center, says, it would cost $30 billion.
However, an unintended consequence of the levees was that natural silt deposits from the Mississippi River were unable to replenish the delta, causing the coastal wetlands of Louisiana to wash away and the city of New Orleans to sink even deeper. The Mississippi River delta is subsiding faster than any other place in the nation. While the land is sinking, sea level has been rising. In the past 100 years, land subsidence and sea-level rise have recently added three feet to all storm surges. That extra height puts affected areas under deeper water; it also means flooding from weaker storms and from the outer edges of powerful storms spreads over wider areas. The marshes that ring New Orleans, as well as the land depression of the city itself, originally above sea level, have sunk the quickest.
The problem with the wetlands was further worsened by salt water intrusion caused by the canals dug by the oil companies and private individuals in this marshland. This erosion of the wetlands not only caused Louisiana to lose per year of land annually and of land since the 1930s, but it also destroyed Louisiana’s first line of defense against hurricanes.
Hurricanes draw their strength from the sea, so they quickly weaken and begin to dissipate when they make landfall. Hurricanes moving over fragmenting marshes toward the New Orleans area can retain more strength, and their winds and large waves pack more speed and destructive power. Scientists working for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources measured some of these effects during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Andrew's surge height dropped from at Cocodrie to at the Houma Navigation Canal to the north. For every mile of the marsh-and-water landscape it traversed, it lost 3.1 inches of height, sparing some homes farther north from more flooding. Currently Louisiana has 30% of the total coastal marsh and accounts for 90% of the coastal marsh loss in the lower 48 states. The engineering of the river has basically brought the Gulf of Mexico much closer New Orleans, making it more vulnerable to hurricanes.
The combination of sinking land and rising seas has place the Mississippi River delta as much as lower relative to sea level than it was a century ago, and the process continues. That means hurricane floods driven inland from the Gulf have risen by corresponding amounts. Storms that once would not have had much impact can now be devastating events, and flooding now penetrates into places where it has rarely occurred before. The problem also is slowly eroding levee protection, cutting off evacuation routes sooner and putting dozens of communities and valuable infrastructure at risk of being wiped out by the flooding.
State and federal officials have recently pushed a $14 billion plan to rebuild wetlands over the next 30 years, to be funded by oil and gas royalties, called Coast 2050. Louisiana will receive $540 Million under the energy bill enacted in August 2005. More money for this program is likely to come with aid from Hurricane Katrina. The original actual cost needed for the project, however, was $14 billion.
Wetlands have the capacity to absorb storm surges at the rate of per . However, due to the systematic, long-term nature of wetland loss, and because wetland remediation can take decades, it is not possible to pinpoint blame for wetland loss on any specific Congress, legislature, President, or governor.
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