Rebuilding New Orleans: Don’t build on quicksand

Down to Earth points to a Washington Post editorial (June 7th) that writes:

… the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers admitted responsibility for much of the destruction of New Orleans. … As the Corps’ own inquiry found, the agency committed numerous mistakes of design: Its network of pumps, walls and levees was “a system in name only”; it failed to take into account the gradual sinking of the local soil; it closed its ears when people pointed out these problems. The result was a national tragedy.

…the New Orleans disaster has illustrated the folly of building flood defenses for vulnerable low land: Some of the worst-hit areas would not have been developed in the first place if the Corps hadn’t decided to build “protections” for them. Encouraging the Army Corps of Engineers to build Category 5 defenses for all of Louisiana, including parts that are sparsely populated for good reason, would not merely cost billions that would be better spent on defending urban areas. It would encourage settlement of more flood-prone land and set the stage for the next tragedy.

On Down to Earth, Daniel Collins comments on how this behaviour falls into the pathology of natural resource management:

The engineering that the Corps offers provides residents and residents-to-be with a false sense of security. There is an implicit belief that since we have re-worked nature as much as we have in the past, or that we have been given dominion over the Earth, that we can continue in the same vein without limit. Modern societies endeavour to isolate themselves from the vagaries of the environment. What that has given us is a higher quality of living, offset by disasters like Katrina. Hurricanes will continue to roll into Louisiana, with or without global warming; New Orleans will continue to sink; and eventually the Mississippi will transfer its discharge into the Atchafalaya.

Building buffers against nature is a sound strategy, but it should be supplemented by building into society a degree of resilience and flexibility. Part of this is the ability (strength even?) to impose limits on building in unsafe regions. This may constrain liberties, but Katrina constrained the ultimate liberty of at least 1,800 people.

3 thoughts on “Rebuilding New Orleans: Don’t build on quicksand”

  1. I think it makes sense for house boats to be used, rather than single wide mobile homes. Both for FEMA supplied trailers and for homeowners wanting a safer design for the next time New Orleans fills up with water.

    I was thinking that a houseboat with one or more strong anchor chains attached to it, the anchor chains cemented in the ground, and also a way to secure the houseboats by anchor chain higher up the chain near the top of the anchor chain, so that hurricane winds do not blow the houseboats over, but that you can then detach the short anchoring, leaving the long anchor lines in place, so that when New Orleans fills up with water, the house boats merely float at the surface, attached to their anchor lines so they don’t float away, and when the water subsides they settle back down. Then they are put back onto their properties by cranes and the short anchoring is secured again.

    The result is way less financial losses and disruption to homeowners and to the City. Property fences would need to be pretty low or nonexistent, so that when the house boats settle down, they are not resting crooked on a fence.

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