It’s not often I say this about a US news media outlet, but credit to where it’s deserved.
The New York Times has done a consistently excellent job of reporting on conditions in New Orleans as well as highlighting its unique culture.
The other day they printed this op-ed piece on the reality of floods and levees not just in New Orleans but around the country. It’s the first time to my knowledge of piece demonstrating this level of intelligence on the subject has appeared in a major publication.
There Will Be Floods
These levees were designed poorly and built of whatever material was close at hand — clay, soft soil, sand mixed with seashells. Tree roots, shifting stones and rodents weaken them further. The land the berms are built on often subsides, while the waters they restrain constantly probe for weak spots.
Sadly, America’s flood-protection system has long been undermined by bureaucratic turf wars, chronic underfinancing by Congress and a lack of political leadership. The heart of the problem is the Corps of Engineers, which Congress has “streamlined” relentlessly for decades, imperiling its mission through budget cuts and neglect. The Corps has a good set of engineering guidelines for levees, but it doesn’t always follow them. Now largely staffed by civilians, the Corps has a backlog of projects it does not have the money to accomplish.
Business has also ignored the levee problem. Developers, abetted by the Supreme Court’s vague 2006 ruling on the Clean Water Act, have rushed to fill in wetlands and build in floodplains.
But water is an inexorable force that, sooner or later, will assert itself. This is a lesson others have taken to heart. In 1953, a hurricane in the North Sea breached dikes and flooded the Netherlands, setting off a period of national soul-searching. Realizing that they had suffered from poor engineering and communication, the Dutch spent billions of dollars to create a world-class flood control system and are now armed for a once-in-10,000-year event.
The United States isn’t even prepared for a once-in-100-year event. In light of climate change, we need to emulate the Netherlands and make flood protection a national priority.
For starters, we need to reinvigorate the Army Corps of Engineers and give it a mandate to build and maintain a coherent, robust, nationwide flood protection system — as opposed to the ineffective, piecemeal measures that failed so catastrophically in New Orleans.
Second, the laws stemming from the 1928 Flood Protection Act, which immunize the Corps from prosecution when its levees fail, must be repealed. Already, the Corps has quietly begun to decertify some of its levees, effectively abdicating responsibility when disaster strikes.
And finally, citizens and businesses who benefit from levees should apply their skills and resources to their upkeep. For years, we have relied on dredging, bulldozing and building ever-taller walls to control nature. Instead, the Corps should work with other government agencies, businesses, scientists and environmental groups to develop a greener, more intelligent system that integrates traditional engineering with natural defenses like wetlands, islands and reeds. Such an approach will be costly and require maintenance, but will prove far more effective than our current methods.
The need to eliminate dangerous levees gives Congress the chance to rethink land and water use, and how they are connected. We should integrate nature and technology, build only in areas that can be adequately protected and allow some wetlands to return to their naturally unconstrained state. After all, experts say, there are only two types of levees: those that have failed, and those that will fail. If we have learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it’s that we cannot simply wish natural flooding away.