New Orleans Is a City essay

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently at work in the city on a project to increase the height of the levees and construct floodgates, at a cost of over $12 billion. This work will be able to protect from a "100-year" storm as they are called -- dangerous but not severe -- with a 1-in-100 chance of hitting in any given year. It is estimated it will take two more years to finish.

"For heavily-populated urban areas, where the failure of protective structures would be catastrophic -- such as New Orleans -- this standard is inadequate," the report said.

This independent group urges that the city should have either 500-year or possibly even 1,000-year levees and floodwalls. They insist that the same kind of engineering standards utilized in earthquake zones should be used in New Orleans.

And there is more. Because of this future vulnerability to flooding, the panel asks that the city consider not allowing the population to reside in those areas vulnerable to the flooding. They especially target those areas of New Orleans that are below sea-level which is about 49%

of the city. The point made by the report is that New Orleans is a unique situation, and living there means some risk. Good decisions about where to rebuild should be made.

However -- and here's the future -- Mayor Ray Nagin and others of the local government have stated that the government should not dictate where people can live. As a result, the city, according to Maggie Merrill, Nagin's director of policy, meets with the Army Corps of Engineers regularly, and the city itself is "trying to rebuild its facilities higher and stronger."

This is not good news since the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the 350 miles of levees and breastworks protecting the city might take, according to their estimates, 20-25 years to complete to upgrade to Category Four or Five storm status.

Martin McCann, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Stanford University in California, warns that even that long-term planning may not account for changes to the risk equation. "As further development goes on behind levees, over decades you need to revisit the question and say, are those levees providing us the protection that we wanted?" he said. "The answer is probably no, because the exposure is probably greater. The number of people and the [amount of] valuable property [behind the levees] is greater."

Many of the same coastal scientists and engineers who sounded alarms about the vulnerability of New Orleans long before Katrina are warning that the Army Corps is poised to repeat its mistakes -- and extend them along the entire Louisiana coast. If you liked Katrina, they say, you'll love what's coming next.

There are quite a number of geologists, geographers, and engineers who agree with the assessment that New Orleans cannot just be rebuilt on "old" ground. They recommend a number of measures such as relocating part of the city to higher ground, limiting where people can rebuild their homes, moving the outer-edge "sprawl" that exists so that the cypress swamp can regenerate itself as a buffer zone for the city, or increasing taxes of some sort to pay for the natural disaster that is sure to follow.

Other Portents of an Ill Future

(Bergal, et al., 2007) in their acclaimed book, A City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina, confirm that in 2004 the city of New Orleans had a long-delayed, massive hurricane preparedness exercise funded by FEMA. The scenario turned out to be incredibly similar to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with widespread flooding and hundreds of thousands of people displaced. Many of the same breakdowns in communications, evacuation, and health care that would later occur during Katrina happened during the exercise.

"The real storm rendered the communications system -- local, state, and federal -- practically inoperable. The buses that were supposed to evacuate thousands of people never came. Most hospitals lost power and had made no arrangements to evacuate patients. The nations' disaster medical system, which deploys teams to assist in such emergencies, was stopped up [not by technical problems,] but by bureaucratic problems that stymied its effectiveness.

The social services network that was to have been there to pick up the pieces was nonexistent in many areas."

After all the previous warnings about what a storm could do to the city, and after a massive test of its capabilities only a few months before and lessons learned from that exercise, the whole system -- almost everything -- crumbled when Hurricane Katrina rolled into town. The why of all of that is left for another time.

But the importance here is that we are looking to the future, and the "corrections" New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, and the federal government are supposedly making to all of its problems so that another storm cannot have such disastrous effects. And what we know is that only a few months after the FEMA-funded hurricane exercise, any lessons learned evidently weren't applied when the storm hit. So, is it believable that all the horrendous chaos has been corrected by that same city? We have already seen, from ample evidence regarding the levee system, that work is being done and activity is taking place -- but is it being done correctly to protect the city? One would have to question that it is.

So, we'll look at a few more of these systems and problems that did occur during Katrina and determine whether the evidence persuades us to believe that they have been fixed so that we are now prepared for the next natural disaster to strike anywhere in the United States.

Next to the levee system failing, one of the biggest failures was the communication within the city itself, with the state, and with the federal government. This one major problem led to many of the others. The Senate Committee, within its report, made many hard recommendations to fix these situations. Though it is difficult to know for sure and gather the proper hard evidence, we will attempt to see if those "suggestions" have been followed -- by anyone, or, if New Orleans is still ill-equipped to face that future big storm.


"The shriek of Katrina's 140 mph winds and rat-a-tat-tat of its driving, torrential rain left in its tumultuous wake a coast silenced by vast devastation. Darkness ruled not just night but day, as the electric grid crash darkened shelters and the lights of fiber-optic cable went off in an instant. Cell towers fell, broadcast stations were yanked off the air, and the voices of a great city fell silent. The city, and parts of the Gulf Coast as well, simply dropped off the globally networked web of voice, data and video communications that define societal participation in the Information Age."

The loss of communications was massive and unprecedented. The FCC eventually added up what the real communication losses were in the path of Hurricane Katrina. Three million customer lines, over one thousand cell sites (towers), and 37 or 41 radio stations lost in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama due to the wrath of Katrina. More than 30% of all cell sites were lost. Fortunately, satellite carriers were able to provide first responders with video and audio communication.

Again, we're looking at the foresight and planning that would indicate to us that this country has learned its lesson and is ready for the next big natural disaster. And what is disappointing was that they had the same type of massive communication failures, though on a much smaller scale, during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and those communication difficulties were well-known by federal, state and local governments. New Orleans had communication problems during their FEMA exercise a few months before -- but it happened again.

Actually, this is mostly the fault of the local and state level of government. The question is why, once they had identified that satellite phone systems might be the only reliable form of communication, didn't local/state governments purchase the satellite phones? A few hundred of these phones, which any state can afford at about $1,000 each, would have resolved most of the problems experienced with communication and, as a result, coordination of efforts during and after Hurricane Katrina.

As a matter of fact, New Orleans did have quite a few of the satellite phones, in a box, in Mayor Ray Nagin's office. He complained that none of them worked. Later it was determined that the phones and the system were fine, but neither Mayor Nagin, nor anyone else had been trained to use them properly!

Will they in time for the next storm?

The White House report on Katrina said this: "The complete devastation of the communications infrastructure left responders without a reliable network to use for coordinating emergency response operations." No. Not quite true, if lessons had been learned from previous experience. There was a network, but no one planned to have the proper equipment and know…[continue]

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