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New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The storm had been building in the Caribbean for a number of days and city residents and officials were well aware of it. Two days before it hit, the Governor of Louisiana recommended that residents evacuate. The day before it hit, the city's Mayor, Ray Nagin, issued a mandatory evacuation order. A majority of the city's population got out, almost all of them by car, but about 100,000 out of an estimated 455,000 were trapped. There was essentially no other way out, and so those trapped were largely those without cars. Other than reversing some highway lanes to speed evacuation by road, the city had no evacuation plan. The hurricane was a category 3 storm (the categories, based on wind velocity, go up to 5), so the winds, though high, were not extraordinary. But the storm moved slowly, allowing lots of time to build a very large storm surge and lots of time for the high waters to batter the city's levees and storm walls. These broke in many places and within a day or so 80 percent of the city was under water. For several days after the storm, TV viewers could watch pictures of people being rescued from roof tops and second-floor windows. It was an enormous disaster that claimed an estimated 1,500 lives.

Although the event was a shock, it was not entirely a surprise. There had for some years been discussion about the city's vulnerability. In fact, a few months before, the city's main newspaper, the Times-Picayune, had run articles pointing with considerable prescience to the potential for disaster. Many people prior to Katrina held an "it's not if, but when" view of the city's situation.

The disaster had a large manmade element to it. In the nineteenth century most of the city's small population lived on the highest ground in the city, what is now the French Quarter and vicinity. As the city's population grew, lower lying ground was drained and developed. By the time Katrina struck, much of the city's population lived at or a few feet below sea level.

To the south of the city were some dozens of miles of wetlands or Bayou. This offered considerable protection from storm surges. In the 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers, using data from previous storms, made a rough estimate that on average 2.7 miles of wetlands would reduce storm surge by a foot. There was great variation from site to site, and storm duration is also important, so that the 2.7 figure is only a rule of thumb. But it still gives one an idea of the importance of wetlands in this connection.

In the twentieth century human activity began to change this picture. The Mississippi River had a long history of flooding and from time to time even changed its course after major floods. In 1927 a catastrophic flood inundated 23,000 square miles and led Congress to pass the Flood Control Act of 1928. The Army Corps of Engineers then embarked upon a massive levee-building program which was largely successful in preventing subsequent floods.

But the levees had an unintended consequence. They greatly reduced the amount of silt the river carried. They also increased the speed at which the river flowed.

The wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi exist in an equilibrium between the deposition of silt and the washing away of silt by the waters of the Gulf. Thus the wetlands began to shrink. The situation was made worse when numerous canals were cut through the wetlands to facilitate the movement of ships and barges. That permitted the intrusion of saltwater into the wetlands, which kills off trees and other plants adapted to fresh water. That, in turn, reduces the root system that holds the soil of the wetlands together, further increasing the loss of wetlands. By the time Katrina hit, the wetlands had retreated many miles from where they had been a century earlier.

The city, like the area around it, sits on compacted silt which is subject to some subsidence just from its own weight, but that effect was greatly amplified by drilling for oil, gas, and fresh water. The same effect is seen in aquifers in many places from the pumping of well water, but it is especially consequential in a place that sits as low as New Orleans.

Between the loss of wetlands and subsidence, the city became a little more vulnerable each year; hence the "not if, but when" reality. A few weeks after Katrina struck, the city began its plans for recovery. New Orleans had never had a large planning department, and a while before Katrina it had been cut back in size at Mayor Nagin's initiative. The few planners from the city, many planners from the outside, some associated with the American Planning Association, some with the Urban Land Institute, some with academic institutions, and some with planning consulting firms became part of the recovery planning scene. So, too, did the population of the city.

Two planners, Robert B. Olshansky and Laurie A. Johnson, have chronicled a very complex planning experience in Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans (listed in this chapter's Bibliography). One phenomenon they noted in connection with catastrophe planning is what they called "time compression." Planning is essentially a sequential process just as is putting up a building. Time is needed not just to make plans that depend on prior steps but also to establish communications, to share data, and to build trust. They observe that the best preparation for planning after a disaster is to have a well-functioning planning process in place before the catastrophe. That was not the case in New Orleans. A comprehensive planning effort in the best of circumstances takes time. But in the aftermath of a catastrophe a traumatized population is not in the frame of mind to sit quietly as a systematic planning process unfolds.

The first thought of many of the outsiders who came in to help was that perhaps the footprint of the city should be reduced. New Orleans had been losing population since 1960, and it was immediately clear that many people had who fled the city were not going to come back. Perhaps some of the more heavily damaged low-lying areas should be written off and converted into open space. Perhaps investment in infrastructure should be directed toward bringing a new city design into being. The smaller footprint sounds sensible and perhaps it really is sensible, but the population would have none of it. The reduced-footprint-focus-on-the-areas-with- most-potential approach was quickly stomped to death by the citizens. They knew what they wanted. It was very simple. They wanted all neighborhoods restored. And they wanted everyone who had fled the city to be able to return if they wanted to. And they wanted work on restoration to start now. Some of the planners wanted to hold back on building permits until questions about safety, distance below sea level, and the like were resolved. Planners were concerned that if people built or rebuilt where they shouldn't it would limit opportunities for future development. That argument carried little weight with the public. They wanted those building permits to be issued promptly. By and large, the city's building department complied.

Citizens' refusal to accept any of the planners' more comprehensive approach was exacerbated by the fact of race. Most of those who were flooded out were black, and most of the planners and what that population saw as the city's establishment were white. A black population that had a deep sense of grievance going back many decades was, understandably, not in a patient, trusting mood.

Almost two years after Katrina a new city plan was completed and subsequently adopted by the city council. It is basically what the citizens wanted: a plan for what the city was before the storm, only better in many small ways.

In planning, there is a dichotomy between comprehensive planning and incremental planning, a matter discussed in some detail in Chapter 19.

The citizens clearly wanted the imcremental approach, though they didn't use that particular word. The reader might also note the section on collaborative planning in Chapter 19 for an idea of how much time and effort may be needed to reach consensus on major issues. Those requirements do not square well with the "time compression" after a catastrophe.

As an aside, the smaller footprint issue is now being discussed for Detroit.23 The disaster that hit Detroit was not a storm but a multi-decade loss of industrial jobs and consequent population shrinkage which led ultimately to the city filing for bankruptcy in 2013. The population of the city is less than half of what it was at its peak. Shrinking its footprint may make a lot of sense. There, too, the idea has been met with citizen displeasure. Whether it will be stomped on as thoroughly as in New Orleans remains to be seen.

Looking Back. How has the plan worked out? New Orleans' population numbered about 455,000 before Katrina hit. It is estimated that in 2006 it was down to 225,000, about half the pre-storm total. In 2012 the Bureau of the Census estimated that it was back up to 369,000, about 81 percent of the pre-Katrina total.24 The population is believed to have been rising slowly since then.

In 2013, survey data suggested that 79 percent of the homes damaged in flooded areas had either been rebuilt or were in the process of being rebuilt. Fourteen percent had been demolished and 8 percent were gutted or derelict. Of the businesses that had been flooded out, about 68 percent were open again.25

Money for restoration had been a problem despite substantial federal aid. Thus many areas are not back to normal yet and services in many parts of the city are still far from adequate. But, overall, much has been accomplished in not very many years. The individual who was most outspoken against the comprehensive approach, a resident whose house was flooded out, takes the view that what was done was better and fairer than would have been the replanning-and-smaller-footprint approach.

The big question is, of course: what about the next Katrina? Here the approach has not been the "go green" policy suggested by Robert Verchick. Rather, it has been the straight engineering approach. In 2013 the Army Corps of Engineers completed $8.7 billion of work rebuilding the city's levees and storm walls. According to the Corps's calculations, the rebuilt defenses will provide an almost total defense against a 100-year storm (a storm that has one chance in 100 of occurring in any given year) and an adequate defense against a 500-year storm (Katrina has been estimated as a 150- year event). The Corps does not claim that there would be no flooding, but rather that the area that might possibly flood would be much smaller and would flood to much shallower depths.26 Eliminating all flooding is very difficult, in part because so much of the city lies so low that just the heavy rain that accompanies a major storm cannot be pumped out as fast as it falls.

Is the Corps's confront-nature-and-defeat-her-approach better in this case than a more accommodative approach? The Corps is confident. Many environmentalists are very dubious. They argue that rising sea levels and warming air may make what we now consider a 500-year storm more likely in any given year. The long-term problems of subsidence and wetland loss have not yet been addressed in a major way.27 With the passage of time, more of the city will be below sea level and the city's dependency on the Corps's concrete and masonry defenses will increase. Think of a bowl that is held down in water so that only the rim breaks the surface. That rim represents the levees and sea walls. Each year the cup is pushed down a little bit further.

Those who favor the Corps's approach may argue that the Corps, over a period of several years, has given the city a high degree of security for many years to come—something that would have taken much longer with a more gentle and nature-friendly approach. They may argue that the Corps's actions have bought time, perhaps several decades, in which to implement a more green solution.

 
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