Tuesday, July 24, 2007

National Geographic Article

National Geographic has a new article out about New Orleans. H/T to Humid Haney

Well, I've gone through the article and there are some really good things in the article, and there are some really atrocious things in the article.

I sent the following email to the editors:

I'm an 11th generation New Orleanian who is also a young engineer working in the city. I'm glad National Geographic continues to show an interest in New Orleans. I read your piece on New Orleans (http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0708/feature1/) and have some comments on it. I bolded the sections I think hit the nail on the head and I added comments in red for the sections that I either disagree with or are blatantly incorrect from a factual basis. If I were you, I would double check some of the things in red and consider issuing a retraction or clarification on a few statements.

I intend to do a more thorough vetting of the article when I get time, but right now I'm swamped.

Clay ********

Tulane University '06
B.S. in Mechanical Engineering


Here's the parts I have to comment on:


Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in United States history (WRONG- COSTLIEST ENGINEERING DISASTER IN US HISTORY. HAD THE LEVEES BEEN BUILT LIKE THEY SHOULD HAVE, NAT’L GEO WOULD BE TALKING ABOUT HOW ‘NEW ORLEANS DODGED THE BIG ONE IN 2005…’), was also a warning shot. Right after the tragedy, many people expressed a defiant resolve to rebuild the city. But among engineers and experts, that resolve is giving way to a growing awareness that another such disaster is inevitable, and nothing short of a massive and endless national commitment can prevent
Located in one of the lowest spots in the United States, the Big Easy is already as much as 17 feet (five meters) below sea level in places, and it continues to sink, by up to an inch (2.5 centimeters) a year (WHAT IS YOUR SOURCE ON THE 17 FEET? THE ONLY AREA THAT IS 17 FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL IN ORLEANS PARISH ARE UNDEVELOPED PARTS OF NEW ORLEANS EAST. 50% OF THE CITY IS AT OR ABOVE SEA LEVEL. EXCEPT FOR RECENTLY SETTLED KENNER, NEW ORLEANS HAS BASICALLY STOPPED SINKING. EVERYTHING THAT CAN SUBSIDE HAS ALREADY SUBSIDED.). Upstream dams and levees built to tame Mississippi River floods and ease shipping have starved the delta downstream of sediments and nutrients, causing wetlands that once buffered the city against storm-driven seas to sink beneath the waves. Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles (4,900 square kilometers) of coastal lands since the 1930s; Katrina and Hurricane Rita together took out 217 square miles (562 square kilometers), putting the city that much closer to the open Gulf. Most ominous of all, global warming is raising the Gulf faster than at any time since the last ice age thawed. Sea level could rise several feet over the next century. Even before then, hurricanes may draw ever more energy from warming seas and grow stronger and more frequent. (This is by no means the universal opinion. Dr. Gray has openly questioned the role of Global Warming. A nice, graphical representation of the views of some prominent hurricane researchers can be found in slide 12 of this presentation: http://www.sse.tulane.edu/FORUM_2005/presentations2006_files/pdfs/willoughby.pdf)

And the city's defenses are down. Despite having spent a billion dollars already, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now estimates it will take until after 2010 to strengthen the levee system enough to withstand a 1-in-100-year storm, roughly the size of Category 3 Katrina. It would take decades more to protect the Big Easy from the truly Big One, a Category 4 or 5—if engineers can agree on how to do that and if Congress agrees to foot the almost unimaginable bill. (WHILE THESE ESTIMATES MIGHT HOLD FOR THE CORPS, THEY ARE TOTALLY DISFUNCTIONAL. IF PRIVATE ENGINEERING FIRMS RAN THINGS, IT COULD BE DONE FOR A VERY AFFORDABLE BILL WITH THE MAJOR PROJECTS COMPLETED WITHIN A YEAR). For now, even a modest, Category 2 storm could reflood the city.

The long odds led Robert Giegengack, a geologist at the University of Pennsylvania, to tell policymakers a few months after the storm that the wealthiest, most technologically advanced nation on the globe was helpless to prevent another Katrina: "We simply lack the capacity to protect New Orleans." He recommended selling the French Quarter to Disney, moving the port 150 miles (240 kilometers) upstream, and abandoning one of the most historic and culturally significant cities in the nation. (TELL THAT TO THE DUTCH! ALSO, THAT FRENCH QUARTER/DISNEY CRACK EXPOSED THIS “SCIENTIST” AS HACK. WHY WOULD ANY CREDIBLE SCIENTIST MAKE SUCH AN IMMATURE AND INSULTING COMMENT? READ THE COMMENTS OF ANOTHER GEOLOGIST HERE- http://vatul.net/blog/index.php/1370/ ) Others have suggested rebuilding it as a smaller, safer enclave on higher ground.


IF PARIS, AS HEMINGWAY SAID, is a movable feast, then New Orleans has always been a floating one. Born amid willow and cypress swamps atop squishy delta soils, the city originally perched on the high ground formed by over-wash deposits from annual river floods. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, actually had to wait for the water to recede before he could plant the French flag in 1718 (SOURCE? I’VE HEARD THIS BEFORE, BUT IT’S A JOKE WE TELL TO OUT OF TOWNERS!). A flood destroyed the village the year after he founded it, and hurricanes wiped it off the map in 1722 and again a year later. In its 289-year history, major hurricanes or river floods have put the city under 27 times, about once every 11 years. Each time, the fractious French, Spanish, blacks, Creoles, and Cajuns raised the levees and rebuilt.


Early on, experts warned about serious flaws in the system. In 1984 Wilson Shaffer, a storm-surge modeler at the National Weather Service, told the corps that the Standard Project Hurricane, the hypothetical storm against which engineers tested their levee designs, was too small to represent the true threat. Stronger storms—such as the Category 5 Hurricane Camille, which slammed into Mississippi four years after Betsy—could easily overtop the system and flood the city, Shaffer said. "There are no high areas near the city that wouldn't flood in extreme cases," he wrote. "High ground is several tens of miles away. Evacuation routes are limited. … Imagine, if you can, the massive destruction and loss of life." (If you talk with Corps employees, they can’t explain the difference between a 100 year event, Standard Project Hurricane, Cat 3 Protection, and Cat 5 Protection. Go ahead and ask them and see the answers you get.)


"Locals wanted the cheapest possible protection system," says Oliver Houck. "But it wasn't cheap, it was just badly built."

The floodwalls along the city's major drainage canals were a classic example of the shortcomings. The corps didn't want to build most of them. Initially it planned to block storm surge with giant barriers across the eastern inlets of Lake Pontchartrain, beef up the levees along the southern lakeshore, and erect massive floodgates to keep high water out of the canals. Environmental groups, concerned about impacts on the lake and its wetlands, blocked the plan in court (That’s not entirely accurate. You’re referring to a lawsuit by the America’s Wetland’s group. I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but I’d bet they would beg to differ with that assessment, if you bothered to contact them. You just parroted a line from Fox News. http://www.newshounds.us/2005/09/14/fox_news_tries_to_blame_environmentalists_for_new_orleans_floods.php I don’t know enough to say what exactly happened, but I know that your one liner isn’t accurate.). The corps dropped the barriers and switched to a system that would rely on higher lake levees and floodgates (at the mouths of the outfall canals – you should clarify not at the mouth of the river). State and local officials—who were required to pick up nearly a third of the ballooning tab—balked at the cost of the gates. They also feared that closing the gates could actually cause flooding, as rainwater piled up in the canals. City leaders pushed instead for floodwalls along the canals. The groups remained at loggerheads until 1992, when Congress passed a water resources act that forced the corps to do it the city's way.

Foundation problems plagued the levees and floodwalls from day one. A contractor building the 17th Street Canal floodwalls in the mid-1990s actually tried to sue the corps for more money as the mucky soils drove up costs. The underlying sheet piles—steel panels driven into the ground to form a barrier—were shifting and pushing the concrete walls on top out of line.


Katrina, alas, exposed these weak underpinnings. When the storm drove floodwaters to within four feet (1.2 meters) of the top (That was not the water level at all parts. There were some areas that failed at much lower levels. There are some that didn’t fail at much higher levels. This is an inaccurate statement that needs to be revised.), the walls deflected backward, opening a crack at their base. Water poured in, found a thin layer of clay as slick as jelly, and forced nearly 450 feet (137 meters) of levee into Orleans Parish. On the London Avenue Canal, sandy soils led to similar blowouts. Floodwall failure let in nearly 80 percent of the water that flooded the central part of the city. "Just ten million dollars more spent on sampling and foundation investigation, and the system wouldn't have failed," (This statement refers to drilling sample bores at closer intervals that the Corps did [once every 10 feet vs. once every 300 feet, as the Corps did]. It’s my understanding that the soil samples the Corps possessed SHOWED the weak layers of soil. The Times-Pic won a Pulitzer for discovering this: http://www.pulitzer.org/year/2006/public-service/works/neworleansps09.html) says engineer J. David Rogers, who investigated the breaches with a team from the University of California, Berkeley. "It didn't come within a country mile of the design load."

And that was just a start. In the year after Katrina, two independent investigations and the corps's own 25-million-dollar study painted a detailed picture of flaws in the planning, design, and construction of the levee system. The corps, in its defense, says it was hamstrung by a political process that tied the project to what the local sponsor wanted and, more important, could afford (And pure porkbarrel spending… Orleans Parish Levee Board was one of the most corrupt governmental entities in Louisiana.). "Basically, you had political influence on significant engineering decisions," says the corps's project manager for the hurricane protection system, Al Naomi. "We went from fighting surge at the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes, to fighting surge at the lakefront, to fighting surge in the heart of a major American city. Failure at the Rigolets would have had far less consequences than failure on 17th Street." (That’s a total cop out and an insult to engineers everywhere. It is the engineer’s ethical responsibility NOT to be influenced by political factors. They MUST own up to a design. They are the final line of defense. “The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope that the people will forget. The engineer simply cannot deny that he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned.” -Herbert Hoover


Kemp points to a new section of bare levee right next to the channel and shakes his head. "This is a recipe for disaster," he mutters. "The waves are going to break right on that thing. If a big storm comes in here this year, it's gone." Even sections of the levees newly capped with clay are already eroding from rainfall, Kemp says. In fact, during a recent inspection, engineering professor Bob Bea, who helped lead the UC Berkeley team that investigated the levee failures, found multiple chinks in the city's hurricane armor, from newly eroded levees along MRGO to Katrina-battered floodwalls that had not been repaired.

"When you start thinking about long-term protection, it doesn't give me any confidence," says Bea, a former resident of New Orleans who actually lost his home during Hurricane Betsy. "The system is ratty, shot full of defects. My advice for the people in low-lying areas: I wouldn't start rebuilding my life there."


Even after the massive engineering breakdown during Katrina, Matt McBride believes people can live safely at the bottom of the New Orleans bowl in a neighborhood called Broadmoor, which dips as much as ten feet (three meters) below sea level. Streets of colorful "shotguns" and raised basement houses, many built in the 1920s and 1930s, have put Broadmoor on the National Register of Historic Places. Its less glorious claim to fame is that for much of its history the place was prone to flooding in any heavy downpour, resulting in one of the highest rates of repetitive flood losses in the nation. In one section of Broadmoor, homeowners with multiple losses have filed an average of six flood claims each.

A 1995 flood following a rainstorm that dumped 14 inches (35 centimeters) on the neighborhood led to a multimillion-dollar drainage improvement project, completed in 2002, that drastically decreased flooding. Even during Katrina, with its 12 inches (30 centimeters) of rainfall, Broadmoor only flooded to the lawns and was pumped dry before the levees breached and the real flooding began. It was proof of what good engineering can do, says McBride, himself an engineer. "You can't design a perfectly flood-proof home," he says. "But if you get adequate levee protection and adequate drainage, I think people will return."


For the moment, the city's prospects have brightened a little. Some of the 110 billion dollars in federal reconstruction funds (That 110 billion is spread over an area the size of England and includes 2 other states. A good chunk [roughly 30 billion] was payouts through the NFIP, not disaster aid. Another large chunk was spent on disaster response and short-term stabilization programs. Very little was allocated for long-term recovery.) is starting to trickle into homeowners' hands, and with the rebuilding plan issued in March the city finally has a blueprint for repairing its infrastructure and sparking a revival. The state has passed its first building code ever to help storm-proof future homes, while the fractious levee boards have merged into two state entities. The Corps of Engineers has 5.7 billion dollars to beef up the city's hurricane defenses and is releasing a long-awaited, supercomputer-generated, flood risk analysis that will help it craft a new hurricane-protection and coastal-restoration plan. Congress even gave the state a slice of oil and gas royalties from a new swath of the deep Gulf recently opened to drilling—to be used to restore the rapidly eroding wetlands, coastline, and barrier islands, which might one day provide some protection from future storms.


"The situation here is a huge opportunity for the city and the nation," says Törnqvist, who says he can't imagine Holland turning its back on Amsterdam, or Italy giving up on Venice. "If we walk away, we'll miss a fantastic opportunity to learn things that will be useful in Miami, or Boston, or New York in 50 years." That kind of revival, however, would require a massive infusion of federal help, better engineering than ever before, and more social and urban planning than regulation-loathing Louisianans have ever stomached.

But even if wind and water give the Big Easy a respite until the corps can guarantee legitimate 1-in-100-year hurricane protection, powerful social and demographic forces unleashed by Katrina may already be undermining the city's revival. Researchers have found that major disasters tend to accelerate existing social and economic trends. A booming San Francisco rebuilt bigger and better after its 1906 earthquake and fire; while the decaying industrial city of Tangshan, China, needed a huge infusion of aid from the government to recover after a giant earthquake in 1976—and was ultimately saved by the country's burgeoning economy. It's a sobering precedent for New Orleans, which has been plagued for decades by economic decline—just a single Fortune 500 company is still headquartered there—shrinking population, failing schools, and high crime.

"So why protect it? Why protect a piece of history that's a cross between Williamsburg and Sodom and Gomorrah?" Oliver Houck sat in his office, hands locked behind his head, pondering the question on everyone's mind. "There are people who will fight to the death to stay here because it's such a damned joy to live here."

But at what price? Houck paused for a moment to gaze out his window at the oak-strewn Tulane campus. The university lost two departments and a quarter of its students to Katrina (I was a senior in Mechanical Engineering at Tulane when Katrina hit. Tulane cut 3 departments [Civil and Environmental, Mechanical, and EE/CS], a number of graduate programs, a small part of the business school, and a large part of the medical school. 85% of students returned after Katrina, but enrollment is down, in part due to the “Renewal Plan.”), while he and his family spent months in exile after the storm. "If two words characterize all of southern Louisiana now, they would be 'total uncertainty,' " Houck says. "It's the total talk around the table. It's the conversation you're having with friends and spouses, even strangers. What do we do now?"


I need to spend more time on this, but I'm swamped right now. There are some good things in the article, and there's some crap. If anyone can help me out with a more thorough debunking of some of the crap in the article, I'd appreciate it. Just send me some old news clippings if you've got them. Also, could any of my engineering readers back up some of what I said? I'm just a 23 year old engineer. I'd really like to have some P.E.'s behind what I'm saying. But, it's revealing that a 23 year old engineer can blow massive holes in major portions of their argument.

UPDATE- DUDE! I made Kos!


Scott Harney said...

The parts of the city that are 17 feet below sea level are the bottoms of the drainage canals. The only other parts that are greater than 10 feet below sea level are the interstate underpasses.

My source is LIDAR relief maps posted at thirdbattleofneworleans.blogspot.com


Scott Harney said...

This post, also from third battle, is even more detailed than the first one


Leigh C. said...

Woohoo! Kick ass and take names, Clay!

When you have more time, that is...


ashley said...

And it's 51%. Just so we can say "Most".

Nice work.

Schroeder said...

Righteous. Ass. Kick.

charlotte said...

Excellent job!

Scott Harney said...

Weird. I didn't notice that it ate my links!

The above analysis clearly shows that the parts >= 10ft below sea level are the bottoms of canals and the "dips" below the interstate and the railroad trestles.

Scott Harney said...

WTF is wrong with blogger!

The part after the "2006" above should be:

or, without the httpp:// bit




Scott Harney said...

good lord blogger is dumb. To see the full links, click on "post a comment" and you have URL's you can paste into the browser.

third battle link 1
third battle link 2