Hurricane Katrina Truth #3– Stop Repeating the Problems

Katrina BraudBy Gerard Braud

On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans, and coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, I’m reflecting on the old adage that says, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results.”

New Orleans can easily flood from another hurricane. I wrote about that in yesterday’s blog. Experts admit that the new fortified levee system is not high enough to keep tidal surge from topping the levees.

There are three areas where I see the potential for the insanity of prior sins and mistakes to be repeated.

1) The first sin is allowing people in low lying areas, in coastal regions, and in flood planes anywhere in America, to build a house on a foundation that is not elevated above recognized flood levels. Whether in New Orleans or a flood river plane in North Dakota, houses in flood zones should be built on stilts higher than predicted flood waters. Some home owners in New Orleans have started doing this. This is how traditional homes here were constructed here. Some homeowners, strapped for cash, have not raised their homes. It is time for building codes in all coastal towns south of I-10 and I-12 along to change. Many homes in Katrina had no wind damage, but were a complete loss because storm surge overpowered levees, flooding everything. In a nation where all flood insurance comes from the government, as do most of the emergency recovery funds, mitigating flooding with more grants to raise existing houses is a far better financial bet than paying out claims after the fact. Establishing better building codes for new construction in flood zones saves money in the long run for everyone.

2) The second is human denial among citizens and elected officials. Citizens first — A hurricane may kill you. If it doesn’t kill you, it can leave you without creature comforts like food, water and electricity for days, weeks, or months. Failing to heed an evacuation order leads to expensive and complicated rescues. I’ve been a storm chaser and journalist in many natural disasters in which people tell me they don’t plan to evacuate because they’ve stayed for other storms and survived. What I’ve learned covering these storms is that no two are alike. No two hurricanes come from exactly the same direction. No two hurricanes have exactly the same wind speeds. In Hurricane Katrina, for example, while the devastation and flooding was astounding, if the eye of the hurricane had passed only five to ten miles further to the West, the urban flooding up to rooftops would have been doubled. It is costly to evacuate, but it is far more costly for communities when residents fail to heed evacuation orders.


As for human denial among elected officials, then Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans is the poster child of human denial. Even when the head of the National Hurricane Center called to tell Nagin that a disaster was eminent, the mayor still waited too long to order evacuations. Evacuations that should have been called 48 hours before the storm were delayed until it was too late to logistically move people. While officials in other communities successfully followed plans and called for timely evacuations, one weak link was pivotal in causing tens of thousands to be trapped by flood waters and leading to hundreds of deaths, mostly by drowning. Those trapped in the flood then led to a massive human rescue effort that costs untold millions of dollars, when it reality there was time and there were resources sufficient enough to most of those people out of harm’s way.


3) The third sin falls in the area of communications. While many communities have emergency and disaster plans in place, they often fail to take the next step of having a crisis communications plan that effectively communicates urgency, peril, and evacuation options to constituents. Pre-written communications documents and properly trained spokespeople are the combination needed to motivate people to leave the their communities until it is safe to return. The proliferation of social media has created new ways to reach people and new ways to gather information about the unfolding crisis, but it also has created more opportunities for rumors and misinformation to spread.

Disasters create living classrooms in which people can learn what was done wrong and what was done right. The goal is to learn so the wrongs are never repeated and so that the rights are done perfectly.

To learn more, read previous posts about Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina Truth #1 – Silver Linings in Muddy Waters – Thank You

Hurricane Katrina Truth #2 – New Orleans Will Flood Again – Find Out Why & How to Stop It


Hurricane Katrina Truth #2 – New Orleans Will Flood Again – Find Out Why & How to Stop It

Click image to watch video

Click image to watch video

By Gerard Braud

As we remember Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago, there needs to be strong communication from experts about how natural defenses, such as coastal marshes, can avert a crisis, such as hurricane flooding. Coastal marshes have been disappearing at an alarming rate of 33 football fields a day for decades. How does this affect you? Read on…

Existing erosion is a story that needs to be told before too much attention is shifted to other environmental issues, which is the rise of sea level. The Weather Channel is showing a program focused on a Hurricane Katrina impact in 2065, based on projected sea level rise. President Obama is also expected to focus on how climate change will affect coastal regions when he visits New Orleans during this anniversary week.

But a greater, unaddressed concern for me is the fact that tidal surge in every hurricane can be reduced by healthy coastal wetlands today. However, the coastal wetlands near New Orleans have been eroding away since levees were first were built along the Mississippi River in the 1930s. Those disappearing wetlands take away nature’s natural line of defense, which is why they need to be restored.

In a 1995 documentary I wrote the words, “Every day Louisiana loses 33 football fields of land, an inch here and an inch there.”

The documentary was called Reversing the Tide, but little has happened in the 20 years since then, except a few pilot projects, more studies, and more talk. A master plan has been created, but too much time is passing without real action.

Hurricane-BarrierScientists say that roughly three miles of healthy, vegetated wetlands can reduce a storm surge by one foot. In some studies based on actual storms, a single mile of wetlands reduced storm surge by one foot. Ironically, one of the major studies on wetland benefits was done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been in charge of building major flood walls around New Orleans, without building major wetlands in front of those walls.

Just outside of those billion dollar concrete walls built since Hurricane Katrina is now water, that just a few decades ago was land. Based on interviews I’ve done with experts over the past 30 years, my belief is a sizeable chunk of money should have been used to rebuild coastal marshes and natural defenses, rather than only on modern engineering marvels that will be topped again by a hurricane’s storm surge.

As constructed now, these walls are the equivalent of placing them on a seashore against violent waves. But if sediment from the Mississippi River is pumped into the marshes to rebuild vegetated wetlands, sixty miles of wetlands, in theory, it would reduce a twenty foot tidal surge to only a few feet of sea level rise. This would put low water levels and waves lapping against these walls rather than the force of a major ocean at maximum fury. And as sea levels rise from climate change, the rebuilding of wetlands can be a sustainable effort.

I’ve spent untold hours in these coastal areas with fishermen, scientists, environmental activist, and engineers. Decades have passed with the various parties at odds. Environmentalists worry about pollutants in the sediments from the Mississippi River. Fishermen worry about losing money as their current fishing waters turns back into land, as it was 50 years ago. Scientists and engineers fight about the best way to tackle the task, often resulting in little or no action. Politicians, who should be funding the projects, are blind to the fact that money spent today in the right way, is a better bet than paying for the massive clean up and restoration of communities, as seen in Hurricane Katrina.

Here are the realities as I see them.

  1. Human engineering created the problem when citizens and politicians asked for levees to be built along the Mississippi River after the great flood of 1927. Marshes are naturally created over thousands of years as annual spring flooding deposits silt and nutrients into the wetlands. The wetlands provide natural storm protection and a healthy ecosystem for fish, birds and wildlife. These marshes are also a natural filtration system that removes pollutants from our earth. Restoring the marshes and reversing the tide must be a priority.
  1. In a modern economy, money mitigates opposition. Commercial fishing is a major part of the economy in this region. Fishermen today, catch fish in areas that consisted of land just a few years ago. This region is a delicate ecosystem with a precarious blend of fresh, salt, and brackish water. The balance has been upset for 50 years. Reversing the trend and the tide, by rebuilding land, will cause a temporary balance change. It can restore a traditional balance and create long-term benefit, but only after a short-term upset. To do this, fishermen will need the same type of financial support congress grants to a farmer who loses his or her crops because of a drought. Pay it, be done with it, and move on with fixing a problem.
  1. The Mississippi River is constantly being dredged to keep navigation channels open for shipping. For decades, the silt has been dumped in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve watched test projects done in which the dredged sand is piped over the river levees and into the eroding wetland. This process can build hundreds of acres of land in just a few days. It is the fastest and lowest cost way to restore the land that has eroded away. The negative impacts on the environment, the fisheries, and the fishermen are far outweighed by the positive impact it will eventually have on the environment, the fisheries, the fishermen, and natural hurricane protection.

The greatest harm comes when humans get in nature’s way. The greatest benefit would be to give nature a helping hand to heal the wounds that we have helped create.