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Five levee questions — who, what, when, where and how (why is implicit).


Big decision

Huge decision. Who's that guy at the switch?

Editor’s note: I never took a course in journalism but my understanding is that budding reporters learn to focus on the who, what, when, where and how of important breaking news. This post is on the critical subject of levees with these same basic questions in mind: Who will  make levee policy for the state? What is at stake? Where will the levee alignments be drawn? And finally, How is the strategy for keeping New Orleans dry influencing the discussion on flood protection for the remainder of the coast that is still above sea level?

Len’s levee law: A. Levee decisions are extremely consequential, with long lasting legacies, some intended, some not. B. Levees are very expensive to build and maintain – and not just in dollars. C. Levees have benefits and costs, the former often exaggerated and the latter typically underestimated.

story by Mark Schleifstein in the January 2 Times-Picayune describes the results of a nationwide survey of the economic impacts of levees by LSU grad student Ezra Boyd. The provocative nature of the subject of levees in the NOLA area was exemplified by the fact that within about 24 hours 55 comments had been posted on the story at, many highly emotional.

According to Schleifstein, the study, commissioned by, reports that US counties (parishes in Louisiana) with some flood protection levees have higher mean household incomes than counties lacking levees. This statistic is apparently being interpreted very broadly by some levee advocates to justify the high cost of building and maintaining levees – on the basis of net savings from flood events avoided.

Editor’s addendum: Since posting this piece Ezra Boyd contacted me and shared the study so you can read it here.

This begs a fundamental chicken and egg question: Do storm levees attract coastal development or do levees just reflect the economic advantages of living in proximity to the coast? This question has important implications for future levee policy in south Louisiana. With all due respect to Boyd’s study* I’m skeptical about what could be usefully gleaned (from Louisiana’s standpoint) from an analysis of levee cost and performance, based on other (non-subsiding) parts of the country.

Levee disconnect

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and the state Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR) are under intense political pressure** to oversee the implementation of an effective coast-wide program to lower the risk of flooding from hurricane surge. In terms of how best to accomplish this goal, a philosophical disconnect exists between a ‘pro-levee’ camp, advocates of more and bigger levees, and a ‘pro-ecosystem’ camp, whose members advocate a ‘softer’ solution, based on a restored ecosystem, non-structural elements and multiple lines of defense.

Members of the latter camp warn that major new levee systems may be as calming and pleasurable as tobacco in the short term — but as addictive, costly and dangerous in the long run.

My sense is that the policy pendulum has swung far in the direction of the ‘levees on steroids’ camp, i.e., the mainly structural approach to coastal protection currently appears to have the upper hand among policy makers. This opinion is largely based on the fact that prior to Katrina/Rita a comprehensive restoration package was priced at $15 billion but after the storms, when coastal protection was added to restoration, the cost for the total package exploded to $100 billion. Nothing but a massive levee system would explain this $85 billion jump in cost.

Based on discussions at many public meetings, my hunch is that this coast-wide ‘levee-heavy’ bias is consciously or unconsciously premised and rationalized on a kind of politically correct coastal egalitarianism doctrine. The logic is that what’s good for New Orleans should be equally good for all of south Louisiana. If my hypothesis is correct, statewide levee policy discussions are being unduly colored by a place (NOLA) unlike anywhere else in the country, where population density is relatively high, where levees are very old and culturally accepted and where most of the natural ecosystem has long since been displaced and developed.

I don’t think that the New Orleans model is appropriate for other parts of the Louisiana coast. Neither do I think that the New Orleans flood protection system, which is currently being bolstered by the corps (to only a 1% annual chance of failure) at a cost of $15 billion, should be used to justify walling off the rest of south Louisiana.

New Orleans flood protection is not analagous to the protection of Montegut, Cocodrie or Dulac, for example. I think that ring levees, a restored barrier shoreline, mandated structure elevation and the thoughtful and public development of pre-storm evacuation measures would be far more appropriate and cost effective.

The unrealistic costs and questionable benefits of a continuous ‘wall of Louisiana’ following any of the proposed cross-basin levee alignments on the drawing board should be very carefully considered by policy makers. This information can be conveyed by the use of graphics that convey the detailed distribution of population centers against alternative levee alignments and patterns of geographic features. For example, Rich Campanella, geography professor at Tulane, is very talented at summarizing site-specific socioeconomic information, using maps and graphs with great power to reveal patterns that tabular data or words alone could never do. Shirley Laska, social scientist and coastal hazard authority at UNO has expressed interest in collaborating on such an effort.

Rich kindly forwarded the image shown below as an example of a map with existing (not proposed) levee alignments shown, in relation to graphical data on population density.


Graphic provided by Rich Campanella

The New Orleans levee model

If you were raised in New Orleans your personal attitude about levees, like tobacco, was probably influenced by your age, your parents and the neighborhood in which you grew up. Long term New Orleans residents understandably share a practical and emotional attachment to levees that goes back generations.

Keep in mind that New Orleans is a very old, one of a kind city located in a unique and in some ways irrational place. Absent levees and pumps, perhaps 50% of New Orleans would be permanently underwater today. That’s part of the mystery, charm and irrational exuberance of the Big Easy. In what other American city would you commonly see bicycle riders multi-tasking with a beer and a cigarette?

Levee policy

As I write this, the levee alignment decision engine is chugging down a coastal track steadily gathering steam. This levee locomotive is approaching a switch that will irrevocably determine its destination: a massively expensive and destructive levees-only future; or a more sustainable future guided by credible science and not political pressure.

Who will tell the switchman how to throw the lever? What will the decision be? When will it be made (2010)? How will it be justified and paid for?

Under one scenario I can envision Governor Jindal on a conference call in 2011 with his engineer Garret Graves and a CPRA crew. The future of most of south Louisiana would hang on this conversation, analogous to the fateful calls by previous Louisiana governors to the death house at Angola. The call could culminate in an irrevocable decision to ‘go for the (levees) gusto,’ with a river diversion at Myrtle Grove and some smaller projects probably thrown in as a token to the ecosystem camp.

Given the way that bureaucracy works, however, I predict a far less dramatic but equally unfortunate (default) scenario in which hard decisions are kicked down the road through the governor’s second term, while energy costs go up, relative sea level rises, land loss continues – and state and national funding never fully materialize.

Either scenario would result in squandering the opportunity to proceed with a no regrets, realistically modest, multi-pronged effort based on good science.

I would love to see a truly open discussion of all three scenarios but I’m not holding my breath.

Two factors that could result in a pendulum shift toward what I think is the most appropriate scenario would be: (1) sticker shock from extremely expensive cost and maintenance estimates of the levee heavy system; and/or (2) effective action (political pressure) by stakeholders, agencies and ngos at the national level.

Of particular concern to me is that despite Louisiana’s sunshine law the serious decisions tend to unfold in agency meeting rooms not accessible to the public. My experience tells me that the policy will be set by engineers and others not necessarily aware of  – and obviously not responsible for – the long term consequences of their discussion.

Len Bahr (

* In fairness to the author haven’t I seen the study yet.

**The US Army Corps of Engineers is also on the line here, in terms of the post-Katrina fallout.

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