A new study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the federal government should spend $3.2 billion to maintain the levee system around New Orleans over the next 50 years. The study recommends raising the levees and upgrading the flood protection systems in order to match the rising sea levels and sinking land.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, news of future flood risks puts residents on high alert.
“We have the Industrial Canal, we have the Mississippi River on one side and Bayou Bienvenue on the other, and so we’re three-quarters surrounded by water and we need to be protected,” says Arthur Johnson, head of the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The day the Army Corps released the report, Johnson was already poring over its 600 pages, looking for answers.
“Where exactly are the worst sections of the levee that need to be addressed and how bad is it? Let’s say it's in the Lower Ninth, the Corps of Engineers need to give the specifics of that study in a way that the community can understand without all the scientific ‘goobly gock’.”
The report includes hydraulic modeling data, geotechnical engineering charts, and cost-benefit equations; but what the scientific ‘goobly gock’ boils down to is that the New Orleans levee system is falling into disrepair much faster than expected because of sea-level rise, erosion, and sinking soil, also known as subsidence.
The threat of flooding isn’t theoretical to Johnson. In 2005, he lost his home to Katrina’s floodwaters and witnessed the devastation of the Lower Ninth Ward when the Industrial Canal levee breached, inundating the neighborhood.
“We had over 6 or 7 feet of water inside. There was some roof damage, but our building was still standing as compared to some people whose homes were just wiped off the foundations,” Johnson recalls.
After Katrina, the Army Corps invested $14 billion in levee upgrades to protect the city from a 100-year storm — a storm with a 1 percent chance of happening any given year. Though the massive infrastructure project was designed to uphold that standard through 2057, the Army Corps is now recommending that new levee lifts begin much sooner in 2023.
Bradley Drouant, the civil engineer who oversaw the Army Corps study, compares the levee lift process to baking a wedding cake.
“You build it up in layers and then when it’s done instead of icing we put grass on top of it,” says Drouant. “We usually do it 6-inch to one-foot lifts, and then they’ll come back and do another layer.”
In 2005, the Army Corps anticipated one foot of sea-level rise; but the new report predicts 1.8 feet of sea-level rise. Emily Vuxton, the policy director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, says climate change is rewriting the math on how to maintain our coastal defense system.
“Over time we can even expect modifications to the estimates because it could be more intense because of the way sea-level rise is accelerating across the country but especially here,” says Vuxton.
The Army Corps’s proposal includes 115 miles of lifts and 20 miles of floodwall repairs on the East and West Banks. If Congress approves the $3.2 billion project, construction would begin almost immediately. Vuxton says officials shouldn’t balk at the price tag.
“If you divide that cost up into 50 years, it’s actually pretty reasonable for a community that is affected by sea-level rise, subsidence, and land loss,” says Vuxton. “If we want to live here in New Orleans, we’re going to have to maintain the system to its operational levels.”
As those operational levels decline, flood risks progressively increase, creating intense anxiety for homeowners like Arthur Johnson, who saw river water come dangerously close to overtopping the levees this past summer.
Flood insurance is another cause for concern. Johnson worries that homeowners will lose their coverage.
The Army Corps report says that if no action is taken, the levees will not be certified to protect against a 100-year storm, which is FEMA’s prerequisite for residents to qualify for flood insurance subsidies.
Bradley Drouant says there is good news in the report: The Army Corps’ cost-benefit analysis shows the levee lifts are in the federal government’s economic interest, making a case for Congress to appropriate funds for the work.
Arthur Johnson says the government should greenlight the project. But the value of the levees can’t be measured only in economic numbers. Not when people’s lives are at risk.
“I live and breathe this issue in our community and this work is more than just a job. It is what I do. It is part of who I am.”
The Army Corps is planning to host public meetings to get community feedback. Arthur Johnson says he’ll be there.
The levee reports can be viewed on the US Army Corps of Engineers’ website, where info about public meetings will be announced in the upcoming weeks.
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