Hurricane Isaac is heading for Louisiana, and everyone is hoping that individuals and government agencies are ready for the onslaught. Seven years ago, Hurricane Katrina caused huge damage, but to a large extent ”it wasn’t a natural disaster. It was a man-made disaster, created by lousy engineering, misplaced priorities, and pork-barrel politics,” noted journalist Michael Grunwald. Grunwald pointed his finger particularly at failures of the Army Corps of Engineers, as have others.
I’ve described the long troubled history of the Army Corps in this essay, including its Katrina failures. Hopefully, the Corps’ facilities will do a better job this time around, but ultimately I think citizens would be better served if the Corps’ activities were privatized or off-loaded to the states.
Here are five ways that the Army Corps magnified the damage done to people and property from Hurricane Katrina:
First, there were fundamental design flaws in Army Corps’ infrastructure around New Orleans. The levees failed in numerous places because of engineering and construction defects, such as the use of unstable soils in levee structures. Most of the flooding was due to water breaching the levees at weak points.
Second, the Corps’ extensive levee and floodwall structures throughout the New Orleans area encouraged development in dangerous, low-lying areas. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Corps was charged with improving the city’s flood protection, but “rather than focusing its full efforts on protecting the existing city, the Corps decided to spend millions of dollars to extend levees into the virgin wetlands of New Orleans East specifically for the purpose of spurring development.” That turned out to be a very bad idea: “Some of the areas in New Orleans where Katrina wreaked the greatest damage were intensively developed only recently as a result of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flood-control projects.”
Third, the Corps’ focus on building economic development infrastructure, such as ship channels, reduced available funds for hurricane protection. Louisiana had received $1.9 billion for Corps’ projects in the five years before Katrina, but only a small share was spent on protecting central New Orleans from possible hurricanes. Grunwald notes: “Before Katrina, the Corps was spending more in Louisiana than in any other state, but much of it was going to wasteful and destructive pork.”
Fourth, Corps’ infrastructure helped to deplete wetlands around New Orleans, which had provided a natural defense against hurricanes. The Corps’ navigation and flood control structures have caused silt from the Mississippi to disperse into the Gulf over the decades, rather than being naturally used to rebuild the wetlands. As writer John McPhee noted, “sediments are being kept within the mainline levees and shot into the Gulf … like peas through a peashooter, and lost to the abyssal plain.” As a result, the wetlands have shrunk decade after decade.
Fifth, the Corps’ Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) shipping channel acted to funnel Hurricane Katrina into the heart of New Orleans. The 76-mile MRGO was built in 1965 at great expense based on optimistic projections of ship traffic, but the traffic never materialized. Constructing MRGO destroyed thousands of acres of protective wetlands, and it acted to channel salt water inland, which killed fresh water marshes and cypress forests. During Katrina, the channel is thought to have intensified the storm surge as it headed toward the city.
For more, see www.downsizinggovernment.org/usace