Flood Risk
Setting a Precedent


Downsizing by District
Written by Bonnie Krenz

Had our class been assigned this problem immediately after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we could have based our plans solely on the conditions of last year. However, we cannot neglect the amount of rebuilding that has occurred and the number of people who have returned since then. The current population of Orleans Parish, as of October 2006, is approximately 190,000 – 43% of the 2004 population of 440,000. Even though less than half of the former residents have returned to the parish, the significant number of people who have come back requires us to take the current residents into account, rather than simply planning our “ideal” city from the ground up. In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers has already spent roughly $350 million repairing hurricane protection systems, and it would be simply wasteful to ignore this spent money.

On the other hand, if our goal is to design a New Orleans that will be safe and sustainable for the next century, rather than just the next decade, we cannot entirely alter our vision for the city based on the changes of the past year. The areas of most concern are those along Lake Pontchartrain – Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East, Village de L’Est, and Venetian Isles – because, as discussed in the Background section, subsidence, sea level rise, and increasing storm surge, among other factors, put these areas at the greatest risk. Therefore, our 100-year goal of “slimming down” New Orleans still applies: ultimately, we want to see all residents move out of these districts. We are then left with two main questions: how exactly do we move residents out of these areas, and over what time period does this need to happen?

Originally, we tried to answer these questions by looking at a wide range of factors, both environmental (rate of subsidence over time, sea level rise, etc.) and social/economic (number of people who have returned, amount of rebuilding that has occurred, historical significance, overall economic benefits and losses); in the end, though, it came down to the issues of safety and practicality – we do not want residents living in areas that we don’t consider safe, should another hurricane of Katrina’s magnitude hit, and we do not want to spend excessive amounts of money protecting areas that we eventually want to see void of residents. For each district we asked: how safe is this area right now? How long can we ensure the safety of this area, and at what cost? Because those questions yield different answers for different districts, our plans for those five areas are not exactly the same in the short term, though they still all lead to the same long-term goal.

Lakeview and Gentilly

The Lakeview and Gentilly districts have similar risk factors. Elevation in Lakeview District ranges from .5 meters above sea level to 3 meters below sea level; elevation in Gentilly ranges from .5 meters above sea level to 2 meters below. Lakeview is subsiding at a rate of 7 millimeters per year; Gentilly, 6 millimeters per year. Each has a total population that is 18% of its pre-Katrina population. Most importantly, the damage in both of these districts was caused by problems with the canals, rather than the levees along Lake Pontchartrain. The flood gates necessary to fix these problems have already been put in place (see levee short-term solutions); therefore, Lakeview and Gentilly should be safe, at least in the short term, from damage of the kind they received with hurricanes Katrina and Rita, should another, similar hurricane hit. So far, a total of $170 million has been spent fixing hurricane protection systems for these two districts. The Army Corps of Engineers plans on spending an additional $120 million in this area, but most of these projects will help protect not only the people in Gentilly and Lakeview, but also the rest of the city. Because the money for protection in these areas either has already been spent or needs to be spent for the more general protection of the city, they are protected at no extra cost. This led us to the solution of a more gradual approach for these areas, and we have created a zoning plan that works in stages to move people out of these areas over the next 50 years.

Lakeview and Gentilly will be zoned according to the following regulations:

  • Effective immediately: No current or future residents may begin the construction of new houses. They may, however, purchase or add onto an existing house.  Neighborhoods with occupancy lower than 5% of the August (pre-Katrina) 2005 population may not remain - they will be entirely evacuated and cleared.
  •  5 years:  In 5 years, no household additions or major renovations will be allowed for existing houses.
  • 10 years: In 10 years, no new residents will be allowed to move into the districts and all existing uninhabited houses will be abandoned and cleared.
  • 30 years: Neighborhoods with occupancy lower than 10% will be entirely evacuated and cleared.
  • 35 years: Neighborhoods with occupancy lower than 15% will be entirely evacuated and cleared.
  • 40 years: Neighborhoods with occupancy lower than 20% will be entirely evacuated and cleared.
  • 45 years: Neighborhoods with occupancy lower than 25% will be entirely evacuated and cleared.
  • 50 years: All remaining neighborhoods will be entirely evacuated and cleared.

While we understand that any plan to move people out of an entire district will sound harsh, the goal is the safety of the people and the overall sustainability of New Orleans in the long term. We believe that the 50 year zoning plan is the least harsh of many methods Over 50 years, most families are likely to experience some sort of life-altering event – such as marriage, death, birth of children, children moving away, divorce, or change of job – that might spur a move. When this happens, the idea is for them to move out of these districts at that time. We would encourage people moving to a safer area in New Orleans, in particular areas south of the I-10 highway. If individuals feel, however, that they would be better off in some part of Louisiana or even elsewhere in the country, they will be provided with assistance in all aspects of relocation – finding a home, job, school system, and anything else they might need.

New Orleans East, Village de L’Est, and Venetian Isles

New Orleans East and Village de L’Est had the most severe damage of any New Orleans district: 86% and 85%, respectively, of the homes in these districts experienced more than $5,200 of damage. Venetian Isles has a higher subsidence rate, 8 millimeters per year, than anywhere else in Orleans parish. The damage these areas experienced was mostly due to the breaching of levees. At this point, the Army Corps of Engineers has rebuilt the levees to the level they were at before the storms in 2005. So far, $67.5 million has been spent on rebuilding the levees to protect these three districts, but $232.5 million worth of planned projects have not been started. Since the levees are currently no stronger than they were in 2005, it is likely that should another storm like Katrina hit, the levees would not fare much better than they did a year ago; since we are planning having people move out of this area eventually, it does not seem practical to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on protection. Therefore, in order to guard against potentially extensive loss, both in property and human life, people will not be allowed to live in these three districts at all.

Effective immediately, we plan to have the government acquire the land of New Orleans East, Village de L’Est, and Venetian Isles through standard eminent domain procedures. Current residents will receive “full and just” compensation for their property: their homes will be bought at pre-hurricane values, and they will receive any additional compensation necessary, such as the costs of moving. Former residents who have not moved back will also be compensated for the full, pre-storm value of their homes. Residents of these three districts will, like the residents of Lakeview and Gentilly, receive free services to help them find a new home, within or outside of New Orleans.

Lower Ninth Ward

The Lower Ninth Ward experienced a great deal of damage – 82% of the homes had more than $5,200 of damage. However, its subsidence rate, 5 millimeters per year, is slightly less than those of many of the areas along Lake Pontchartrain, and its average elevation, .9 meters above sea level, is much higher than many areas of New Orleans, even higher than the average elevation of New Orleans as a whole, that is exactly sea level. Lower Ninth Ward District is divided into two neighborhoods, Holy Cross Neighborhood and Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood. Holy Cross, which has a higher elevation and is a national historical district, experienced far less damage than Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood, and has rebuilt fairly quickly. Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood, however, currently has a population of only about 5% of its pre-storm total, and is even still covered by vast amounts of debris.

Given the exceedingly small number of people returned, we plan on redeveloping the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood as an area that will provide an alternative location for displaced people from other districts to live. The entire Lower Ninth Ward district is included in our century vision for the city due to the fact it is in one of the better locations – that is, more likely to be safe from long-term ecological problems such as sea level rise and subsidence, as it is along the river (see background of problem). One concern with the remaining areas of New Orleans, though, was that the decreased overall area would cause the value of the remaining land to rise dramatically, making it difficult or impossible for lower-income people to stay in the city. We would like it to be possible for all the residents who have returned to the five districts along the lake (above) to live elsewhere in New Orleans, should they choose to do so. Higher-income residents should have little problem finding a home, but increased land values in the safer parts of the city could give rise to a severe shift in the income demographic of New Orleans. Our plan for the Lower Ninth Ward, after extensive cleaning and materials reclamation projects, is to zone much of it for mixed-income housing developments, and reserve other parts for government-subsidized housing (see short term solutions, insurance and building codes). Most of this development will be focused on Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood, taking advantage of the current abandoned state. While the Lower Ninth Ward will be the main focus of such development projects, similar zoning will be used as often as possible in other parts of the city to counteract the possible, unintentional result of forcing people out of New Orleans entirely.

What Will Happen With These Evacuated Areas 

In New Orleans East, Village de L’Est, and Venetian Isles, eminent domain will force residents to move out as quickly as can be achieved, so the abandoned land will soon be available for other uses. Some possible uses for this land might include research areas, sites for alternate energy sources, a wildlife preserve, wetlands, and drainage systems. The land of Lakeview and Gentilly could be used for similar purposes, however because this land will be evacuated more gradually, new projects will be based on the particular size and location of land that is evacuated.

Research areas could be used for a variety of projects, including studying the process of returning filled, urbanized, and contaminated land back to natural wetlands. This project would be particularly valuable to these districts, plus any other areas of New Orleans that, over time, may be forced to go through a similar process. Sites for alternate energy sources might include, for example, area for wind turbines, which in general are not cost-effective because of the amount of land they required, but which could here prove very valuable to the rest of the city. A wildlife preserve already exists in Village de L’Est – the Bayou Savage, covering 20,000 acres – and could be expanded further. Eventually, all of these areas are likely to be converted into wetlands – in other areas surrounding Lake Pontchartrain, particularly to the west, this is already the case, and almost all of the land New Orleans covers was once wetlands, and the wetlands that still surround the city serve the residents in many valuable ways (see wetlands background). At the very least, these areas can accommodate a more extensive water drainage system for the remaining parts of New Orleans. This way, the rest of the city will actually be safer than it was before, and as a whole, the areas still supporting residents will be much easier to protect, and at a much lower cost. Rather than trying to protect vast areas of land which, if current predictions are correct, will only get harder and harder to protect as time goes on, we will be providing much better protection to a smaller city, and these outer areas will serve a function in protecting this smaller city.

Plaquemines Parish 

While our focus was on Orleans parish, our plans for the river necessitate a brief discussion of plans for Plaquemines Parish. The Mississippi river currently runs through Plaquemines Parish, as it does through New Orleans. Our plan for the river, as detailed in the long term solutions/Mississippi River section is to allow it to spread out and distribute sediment south of a designated point. South of this point, no residents will be allowed to remain. The designated point at which the river will begin to disperse is Pointe a la Hache. Residents downriver of this point must be evacuated immediately. In addition, all residents who live outside the boundaries of Plaquemines parish – that is, the areas closer to the sea – must also evacuate immediately. The eminent domain plan being applied in New Orleans East, Village de L’Est and Venetian Isles will take effect here. The second designated point at which the river will start to spread out will be Wilkinson Canal. Since this plan is supposed to gradually take effect over time, residents currently living between Wilkinson Canal and Pointe a la Hache will be subject to the 50 year zoning plan described for Lakeview and Gentilly. According to the 2000 census, the total population of Plaquemines parish was 26,757 – smaller than many districts within New Orleans Parish. Therefore, the overall hardship caused will be minimal, especially given how important long-term solutions for the river are in order to sustain the city.