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In the post-Sandy era we’re competing with the Big Apple for hurricane flood protection.


by Len Bshr, PhD*

Seven years ago Hurricane Katrina focused the sympathy of the nation on the Crescent City, the eclectic, much beloved and uniquely vulnerable coastal city with over three centuries of history under its serpentine, riverine belt. The storied past and bigger-than-life public perception of New Orleans belie the fact that even before Katrina the city had fallen on hard times. About 80% of New Orleans lies below sea level; its storm-diminished population has never fully recovered and its energy-based industrial business climate was long ago eclipsed by Houston.

Nevertheless, New Orleans’ strategic location near the mouth of America’s Waterway, its cultural diversity, its musical heritage and its unquenchable local spirit…accurately depicted on David Simon’s HBO series Treme’…more than compensate for the unimpressive number of construction cranes on the skyline. New Orleans is a bucket list destination for folks in middle America who’ve never actually seen Zulu, the Krewe de Vieux, or the Who Dat’s Drew, at least in person.

On November 14 Mark Waller reported in that New Orleans was ranked America’s Favorite City to Visit by a national travel medium outlet. The article begins as follow:

For the second consecutive month, New Orleans has claimed an elite rating as a travel destination from a major tourism magazine. This time, in fact, it scored the highest honor, when Travel + Leisure declared it the best American city to visit.

Cities that won top scores in the reader survey, but didn’t quite match those of New Orleans, include Santa Fe, Nashville, New York, Minneapolis, San Diego, Savannah, Charleston, West Virginia, San Francisco and Chicago.

Hurricane Katrina demonstrated fatal flaws in the system of levees and pumps, which, until August 28, 2005 had been certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as capable of protecting much of New Orleans from the impacts of a 100 year storm event. The catastrophic levee failure on August 29 prompted Congress to cough up $13 billion to fix the inadequate system that had failed so spectacularly.

The repair project, named in classic corps-speak acronymology as the Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS), was constructed on schedule, generating amazement among long term corps watchers and envy among officials in the surrounding parishes. While HSDRRS was underway the Katrina event was widely seen as unique, not as a generic warning about the hurricane vulnerability of coastal cities.

Superstorm Sandy changed everything, however, spotlighting the increasing vulnerability of coastal urban centers to climate change, sea level rise and growing storm risk. This has prompted a recent spate of articles in the national media about the need to build surge barriers seaward of  coastal populations. Many of these articles cite the Dutch ‘solution‘ to this issue, the Zuider Zee project and Delta Works, despite the fact that the North Sea doesn’t experience tropical cyclones.

Here’s a sampler since Hurricane Sandy on Halloween:

1) An October 29 piece in The Nation by Mike Tidwell, a distinguished writer friend who spends a high proportion of his waking hours writing and speaking about the cultural implications of climate change to his fellow coastal residents. Mike lives in the DC area;

2) A November 2 commentary by Mathew Iglesias in Slate Magazine. Iglesias strongly advocates the construction of a $15 billion barrier plan for NY (the much vaunted Dutch solution) to prevent the next disastrous flood in lower Manhattan. Although the parallels between the Big Easy and The Big Apple are inescapable, Iglesias failed to even mention the former city in this article;

Here are some interesting quotes from Yglesias’ article, related to bearing the cost locally and not waiting for federal funding:

…despite its misfortune in Hurricane Sandy, the New York Harbor region is almost uniquely lucky in being a place that can feasibly contemplate these kind of costly defenses. Manhattan, Brooklyn, Hudson County, and the northern coasts of Queens and Staten Island are some of the most densely populated and capital-rich terrain in the entire United States, meaning that the per capita cost of tens of billions in flood control infrastructure is tolerable.

Rising sea levels are going to mean flooding problems for many other coastal American cities, but your Savannahs, and Charlestons and Wilmingtons—to say nothing of rural communities on the Delmarva Peninsula and elsewhere—will have a much harder time finding the means to pay for adequate defenses.

…But it would be pennywise and pound-foolish for New York and New Jersey to wait around for some kind of federal handout. The bill for defending the area against a recurrence of Sandy or the likelihood that sooner or later an even bigger storm will hit is large, but the price is worth paying. New York and its neighbors can and should find a way to raise the money and get it done.

3) a November 4 article in The Washington Post By Darryl Fears and Juliet Elperin;

4) a November 6 opinion column in The Washington Post by Eugene Robinson;

5) a November 6 article in Nature by Jeff Tollefson describes the plight of greater New York, including the following quotes and the environmental down side of artificial barriers. Note that he does mention New Orleans:

…The storm has added new urgency to discussions of adaptation in forums including the New York City Panel on Climate Change, which Bloomberg set up in 2008. Bowman and others have advocated a system of sea barriers or dykes, similar to those constructed in London, the Netherlands and more recently in St Petersburg, Russia. “If we had implemented a regional barrier system, there would have been no significant damage” within New York’s harbour, he says.

The system envisaged by Bowman and others would include an 8-kilo­metre-wide barrier approximately 6 metres high that could be opened and closed at the entrance to New York’s harbour, and a second barrier at the entrance to Long Island Sound. He puts the cost at around US$15 billion, about the same amount that Congress allocated to the US Army Corps of Engineers in 2005 to build a storm-surge barrier system around New Orleans. Estimates put the damage caused by Sandy at between $30 billion and $50 billion.

Some scientists worry that a single focus on sea barriers could be counterproductive. By disrupting river outflow and increasing sedimentation, such barriers could alter ecosystems. And by diverting storm surges, they might exa­cerbate flooding in areas that are not protected, such as Jamaica Bay in southern Brooklyn. Moreover, sea barriers do not protect against severe rain storms that generate inland flooding.

6) a November 6  story Jon Hamilton on NPR’s Morning Edition presented a story about a more or less obsolete seawall at Norfolk, Virginia. Scientists quoted include Larry Atkinson, an oceanographer at Old Dominion and Abby Sallenger, a friend and colleague at USGS;

7) a November 6 addition to his morning NPR story by Jon Hamilton on All Things Considered;

8) a November 6 NPR ATC interview by host Lynn Neary with Adam Freed, former deputy director of NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability;.

9) a November 19 article by Bjorn Lomborg, iconoclastic critic of  the strategy of reducing greenhouse gases on a massive scale as the primary means to offset climate change…purely on the basis of affordability. Lomborg argues that it’s cheaper to build seawalls than to reduce atmospheric CO2;

10) on November 20, a special report on PBS Newshour called Protecting New York From Future Superstorms as Sea Levels Rise;

11) and finally, on November 25 Matt Sledge wrote a piece for HuffingtonPost on the cost of doing nothing to reinforce flood protection in NYNY.

That brings me to the geopolitical point of this post. The bill for Sandy is still incomplete so as of the end of November Katrina is still the most expensive hurricane on record. This cost (and the 1,800 lives lost) are used to justify the need for a massive investment in federal flood protection in SE Louisiana, including the implementation of the $50 billion Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy awakened a sleeping giant in the form of an expensive national program to construct urban surge barriers along the east and gulf coasts to protect coastal population centers against sea level rise. This will create stiff competition for the already-bleak outlook for Louisiana flood protection. I hate to say it but there will never be enough teats on the ‘surge barrier sow’ to take care of Houma, LaPlace and Slidell.

Unfortunately, whatever is done here will be a local effort.

*Founding Editor

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  2. Len,

    Good starting point for a discussion that must be had, but no one really wants to have. Is there really enough money in the federal government to fully respond to every catastrophic event that occurs; seemingly with more frequency today? For those of us living in the coastal zone we expect and demand that the federal government be on site before the storm clouds clear to hand out checks and return our lives to normal. At the same time, half of the citizens of the U.S. are demanding smaller government and less taxation. I don’t know that we can have both.

    Coastal planning is for the most part done by land owners and real estate developers. The rights of land ownership are a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution. Hence, a political solution to land planning is not on the horizon.

    Sea level rise is a reality. Mega storms are becoming the norm. And, we continute to flock to the coast. I understand, having lived on the coast all my life and not wanting to live anywhere else. But, as I’ve warned my sons, at some point hard decisions are going to have to be made as to who gets bailed out after the storm, what areas get support, and how much money is there to invest in rebuilding. No single city or community is the center of the universe and all are dispensible. Major cities have been disappearing from the earth since the beginning of recorded time and the global society keeps on adapting.

    As noted, this is not a topic we want to face or even acknowledge, but it is a reality and we will have to take action sooner or later.

    Keep up the good work.


  3. Wonder who would jump on board first: the folks in Waveland/Gulfport/Biloxi and St. Bernard for a Rigolets/Chef Barrier OR the Jersey Shore folks for a barrier across NY Harbor.

  4. Nice overview of the situation Len. Hopefully, it’ll slow down the “let them drown if they’re stupid enough to live there” comments about Louisiana.

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