The Lost City of New Orleans?

Lori Widmer

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.

Water Everywhere

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.”

If it were left to residents and city officials, the status quo would prevail. One city official says of the flooding and subsidence, “We are below sea level and we do get floods sometimes, but it’s not a real serious problem. You can still purchase flood insurance.” Another city official expressed faith in the current levee system.

Penland’s frustration with this attitude is apparent. “These are things I’ve been preaching for a number of years. This town has never planned ahead. They’ve always reacted and not pro-acted.”

The insurers of the area are backing up Penland and the U.S. Geological Survey’s thinking. State Farm, for example, will no longer expand its homeowners’ policy market, but opts to replace old business instead.

In fact, New Orleans is sitting in the worst possible location, insurance-wise. The city is considered high-risk by FEMA insurance standards, according to Mark Stevens, director of the National Flood Insurance program. The risk criteria considered when measuring flood insurance premiums are elevation, proximity to water, terrain, etc.

Jim Addison, chief public affairs officer for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, echoes Penland’s frustration. “The government’s not doing anything. No one’s stood up and said, ‘we have to do something to protect the city from this eventuality.’ I don’t know if the rate is so slow and the cost is so high. We’re already spending millions of dollars a year on hurricane protection. The fact that the city is sinking is just one extra thing to worry about.” The current price tag for the Lake Ponchartrain hurricane system is $700 million, still under construction, says Addison.

Still, attempts are being made to stem the tide of nature. “The Corps is involved in a flood control program called South East Louisiana Urban Flood Control Program (SELA),” says Addison. “It has us enlarging existing drainage canals. Where they were earthen canals before, we’re lining them with concrete to improve drainage capacity. We’re increasing the pumping capacity at various pump stations.” The efforts are not cheap. “That’s a $500 million program.” Given that the area receives $400 million a year in government aid, that leaves a hefty bill for the region on a project that is too small to make any major contribution.

Another program, called Coast 2050, involves five federal agencies in an effort to save Louisiana’s coast. Some of the critical solutions proposed in the plan include maintaining shorelines, maintaining river flows and mudstream flow, improving drainage, lowering water levels by modifying flows to tidal marshes, creating marshes through dredging activities, and maintaining the three natural land bridges in the region.

The program would rely on natural processes to achieve the goals, such as small diversions from the Mississippi River, using sediments to preserve marshes, and preventing sediment loss into the Gulf. According to Dr. Bill Good at the Department of Natural Resources and one of the key forces in the Coast 2050 program, the plan will take 30 years to complete. This restoration project, though, comes with a hefty price tag: $14 billion.

But Penland says there is no other choice. “We need to bite the bullet as a society and say that we have a problem. Our coastline has 40 percent of our nation’s wetlands and 80 percent of the loss occurs here. New Orleans needs a wake-up call. The city is on the verge of becoming extinct.”

Lori Widmer can be reached at

COPYRIGHT 2000 Axon Group

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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