Skip to comments.The Lost City of New Orleans? (Dec 2000)
Posted on 08/31/2005 11:08:04 AM PDT by wzlboy
The Lost City of New Orleans?
Louisiana's marshlands, the only buffer for hurricanes that come out of the Gulf, are slipping into the ocean at an alarming rate. New search indicates that just one major hurricane could put New Orleans under water.
The Big Easy is in big trouble. New Orleans is sinking. And fast. But what's the big deal? Local businesses and residents have heard it all before. They've built levees to control the raging Mississippi. They've developed pumping systems to deal with rain and flooding. They've dug canals to move the water out of the city. And still they survive, wearing the battle scars earned from each hurricane and each flood as badges of honor.
New research by the U.S. Geological Survey, however, indicates that New Orleans is sinking faster than many realize and could be under water within 50 years. The city is facing a series of issues--disappearing wetlands that protect from hurricanes, levees that are too low to hold back flood waters, rising water tables, to name a few--that if not addressed soon could have New Orleans suffering the same fate as Atlantis.
Dramatic, yes. But not unlikely, according to Shea Penland, geologist and professor at the University of New Orleans. "When we get the big hurricane and there are 10,000 people dead, the city government's been relocated to the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, refugee camps have been set up and there $10 billion plus in losses, what then?" he asks.
Penland has been studying hurricanes and the Louisiana coastline for decades, and he sees disaster coming. "Along the south shore of Lake Ponchartrain, there was a restaurant built in 1859 and some 200 homes that were built on pilings out on the lake around the 1930s. They had all been through the hurricane of 1948, Betsy in 1965, Camille in 1969. Hurricane Georges destroyed every one of them. Georges had a particular track that had the wind blowing directly across the longest distance that build the biggest waves."
And it is a hurricane on a particular track with a particular force that could submerge New Orleans. According to data supplied by Risk Management Solutions, a leading catastrophe modeling firm in Menlo Park, Calif., hurricanes of Category 4 or stronger make landfall within 100 miles of New Orleans about once every 35 years. There have been four storms of Category 4 strength or greater since 1899. Hurricane Camille made landfall as a Category 5 hurricane and was one of only two Category 5 hurricanes to hit the U.S. in the last century. Hurricane Betsy, a Category 4 hurricane, struck about 80 miles to the west of New Orleans, subjecting the populated areas to the stronger winds and surge on the right side of the storm path.
Another factor in how the city survives a hurricane is the natural buffer between the city and the sea. Louisiana's marshes are depleting at a rate of 25 miles to 30 miles per year, or the equivalent of a football field every 15 minutes. Since 1930, the state has lost well over 1,500 square miles of wetlands. Each year, New Orleans inches closer and closer to the Gulf of Mexico. The shrinking wetlands that bring the city closer to the coast are the same ones that have protected the city from catastrophic disaster in the past. Wetlands and barrier islands are a natural protection against hurricanes.
New Orleans sits on a bed of silt, sand and clay, which historically has been rebuilt with each flooding; new silt and sand are deposited when the river floods. But the levees that protect the city from flooding also prevent the rebuilding of the silt. As a result, New Orleans is sinking at a rate of one-third of an inch per year, which is not good for a city that is already eight feet below sea level. To make matters worse, global warming is causing the sea level to rise.
Because of these factors, Louisiana is a hot bed for claims, says Diana Herrera, regional marketing manager for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) that operates through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Flood claims for just the Orleans parish region since 1978 have totaled well over $309 million. Nonresidential property claims in that same area total more than $36 million, paid on 2,177 claims.
"Historically, we see more damage (from flooding) in the Jefferson, Orleans, and St. Tammany parishes. The May 1995 flood was the number one single largest event in the history of NFIP, and we paid more than $500 million in losses in that area," says Herrera.
The stakes are high, and not just for businesses in the region. Louisiana's contributions to the national economy are substantial, according to a report from the Louisiana Coastal Restoration Association. The infrastructure of the coastal area could experience a loss of more than $150 billion. That infrastructure supports several industries, including the $18.6 billion offshore oil and gas industries. Crude oil production and natural gas extraction in Louisiana contribute 89 percent and 83 percent of the country's oil and gas production. Thirty percent of the nation's fisheries are in and around the Louisiana coastline, and oyster production makes up 25 percent of the national market.
Draining the water from the New Orleans region has been a constant, centuries-old problem.
"Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, New Orleans had a very unique system of drainage that the Dutch copied," says Ken McManis, professor at the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of New Orleans. "What we had was a system to collect the water and pump it over the levee system. But if the water accumulates more rapidly than the pumps can handle, we get flooding in certain areas."
The turn of the century brought development to the lakefront. Flooding problems plagued the area. In 1920, the New Orleans Levee Board began a massive effort to hold back the lake. The city built a 200-acre, six-foot wall along the south shore of Lake Ponchartrain. By the mid-30s, the project was completed.
At the time, New Orleans was the economic center of the south. But a 1927 flood caused the banks to fear that the location was a threat to their economic stability, according to Charles Demas, head of the U.S. Geological Survey in New Orleans. The banks left for higher ground.
Another hurricane in 1940 overtopped the levee and flooded the city once more. Again, another levee was built that raised the existing levee a bit higher. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy overtopped that levee, and the city flooded again.
Today, water is still a problem. After several different levee systems and drainage canals, New Orleans is still wet. Twenty one pumping stations still pump the water back over the levees into Lake Ponchartrain. The water tables are still rising.
And hurricanes are still a concern. Scientists say that a hurricane of category 4 or higher would devastate the city, and the current levees and drainage measures would be rendered useless. "The biggest fear is a hurricane coming through Lake Ponchartrain with New Orleans being on the northeast quadrant of the storm's center," says Demas. "That's where all the rain's going to be."
Experts conclude that it would take about 72 hours to evacuate the city should such a hurricane hit New Orleans.
Too Few Efforts?
For the most part, the business district has not experienced widespread sinking. And building modifications have helped the downtown business district to better manage flooding.
Brian Schwaner, vice president of communications for the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, says that preventive measures are now the norm. "Businesses put in more safeguards during construction. They put support pilings under buildings that go much further down and give more security. They now have what's called an S pile, which is like a screw that's pounded into the ground in the same way a regular piling is."
Pumping water from the soil has become a standard requirement for new construction. Drainage canals must be constructed for most regions within New Orleans. Yet even taking the water away creates a problem. "By putting in the drainage canals, you begin to drain the area," says McManis. "As you lower that water level, it adds additional weight to the surrounding soil. As a result, the soil begins to condense and cause down movement in the soil itself." The ground sinks even more.
Shoring up homes has become a thriving business in the city, according to Schwaner. As homes list and sink, companies jack up the homes or provide fill to even the ground. All of the efforts seem like a bandage approach, thinks Penland. "It would cost a billion or two dollars to make the levee 30 feet high. A major flood with loss of life could cost $10 billion. What's wrong with this picture? If we know the worst-case scenario is billions and it would take a billion or two to prevent it, why don't we do it? I don't think anyone's thinking about it."
They're just about there today.
""When we get the big hurricane and there are 10,000 people dead, the city government's been relocated to the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, refugee camps have been set up and there $10 billion plus in losses, what then?" he asks."
Blame Bush, Rove, and Halliburton, of course...
I'm not ready for tinfoil, but notice the timing of the article, just after the 2000 election. What? So nobody recognized the problem during X42i's term? Actually, it's probably that more of them didn't want to recognize it during the 90's, brush it aside, blame republicans and party. And it's been an issue a lot longer than that, even before Clinton, that's what makes Landrieu's comments so aggregious. It's a shame, really, that such a historic and beautiful city and it's residents were left with little band-aid fixes for years, and now it's all gone.
bumpity-bump for later read
Rebuilding New Orleans is nuts. leave it as it is for a memorial for inept urban planning. By the way all urban planning is inept. By definition, urban planners are meddlers only. They take no risk. They are not punished for bad planning. Only insurance companies or taxpayers are punished.
Great find! Thank you!
ping for later
kind of weird to read this and then look at the pictures today...my heart goes out to the people who have lost everything...thank can thank god though that they are alive
Not just any hurricane could engulf New Orleans, Willoughby explains; otherwise, the city would have drowned long ago. New Orleans' nightmare will be a "perfect" storm--one that strikes in just the right way.
Every year, an average of five or six hurricanes that form in the Atlantic Ocean churn toward Central and North America--often with Florida and the Caribbean islands dead in their paths. But changes in wind direction and Earth's air currents cause most hurricanes to sweep around and roll up the U.S. East Coast, weakening as they move over colder seawater. About once a year, however, a hurricane stomps right over Florida, where warm water in the Gulf of Mexico can re-energize it as a monster storm, thrusting it westward.
The perfect storm could either strike New Orleans east of the city, with gale-force winds blowing south, shoveling water from Lake Pontchartrain over the lake levees; or the storm could strike west of the city, causing winds to heave Gulf of Mexico seawater up the Mississippi River and crash over its levees.
Joseph Suhayda, former director of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute at Louisiana State University, uses computer models to study potential hurricane hits. His surprising finding: A severe but not catastrophic Category 3 storm would be enough to swamp New Orleans if it slowed down and hovered east of the city.
This guy almost hits the nail on the head.
It's about time to CALL Halliburton...