Short Term
Long Term
Setting a Precedent


Written by Adam Talsma

Seeing the Future

It is time that the city of New Orleans plans for the future and not simply the next decade.  If Hurricane Katrina taught us anything it was that planning for the future right now is paramount for the safety of future generations.  Following the USACE planning strategy, we chose to plan for 100 years into the future.  It is vital that we, the city planners, learn from past mistakes and also take into account 100 year predictions for sea level rise and subsidence.  The 100 year estimates for sea level rise due to global warming and subsidence due to oil drilling, oxidation of organic soil, and urban development gives us an estimate of what exactly we must plan for.  With this information, the class agreed that for safety reasons, New Orleans future should involve a smaller city that can be cost-effective yet also provide for a safe hurricane and flood protection system.

New Orleans hurricane history clearly shows that the magnitude of hurricanes has steadily increased over time.  In the New Orleans Hurricane of 1915, 23 people were killed and $239 million - in 2005 US dollars - was spent on damages.  Hurricane Betsy struck in 1956 killing 28 and costing $250 million, also in 2005 US dollars.  Then in 1969 Camille claimed 259 lives and accumulated costs of over $9 billion (2005 US dollars).  Hurricane Katrina and Rita caused 2000 casualties and is expected to cost $105 billion (LAGIC, 2006).  The history extrapolates towards a bleak history for New Orleans.  The effects of these increasingly large hurricanes cannot be underestimated. 

Unfortunately, meteorologists are predicting even worse conditions in the future.  Due to global warming the sea level is expected to rise at a mean level of ½ meter over the next century (IPCC, 2001).  The exact amount will depend on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions between now and then.  In addition, the region has an average subsidence rate of 5 mm/year, which then means that after sea level rise and subsidence are taken into account, in 100 years the land of New Orleans is predicted to be 1 meter lower relative to the water (Burkett).  In an attempt to visualize this, the data was entered into a GIS mapping program.  The result was startling!  The entire city of New Orleans was several feet underwater, and only a narrow strip of land hugging the bank of the Mississippi River remained visible at all above the water.
    It was very clear that a city so far under sea level could not depend on taller levees and more effective pumps because the risk involved was simply too great.  If, in 100 years from now, the levees were to breach during a storm surge, New Orleans would be completely inundated.  Hurricane Katrina’s storm surges were as much as 16 feet in on the coast of 

Lake Borgne (LAGIC).  If a storm of this same magnitude were to hit New Orleans in 100 years the levees would not only have to be completely structurally sound but also built to over 22 feet.  The problem is that the current levees are as low as 17 ft (Mayer, 2005)  If any section was to give out at any time, thousands of lives would be lost, and any citizens who were able to evacuate would have to start over from the beginning once again.  Breeched levees during Katrina affected at least 80% of New Orleans has already cost the US government over $75 billion dollars (Times interactive map).  If predicted levels of subsidence and sea level rise over 100 years are to be trusted, a breeched levee during a storm similar to Katrina would flood nearly 100% of the city and accordingly cost over $93 Billion dollars.  Furthermore, total devastation would mean the loss of priceless historic sites vital to not only American tourism but also to the history of the United States.

Katrina and Rita provide New Orleans city planners with a chance to plan for a better future by using the destruction already caused by Katrina to its advantage.  If the city’s rich culture and history is going to be preserved past another 100 years, the city cannot simply continue to build on sinking ground while putting their faith in a complex levee system that has a record of past failures and a limited budget.  In fact, the Flood Risk Education Alliance (FREA) emphasizes the importance of New Orleans communities realizing that levees in general have a history of certain limitations including complicated maintenance requirements which become more challenging with age, risk of overtopping, and failure to provide the level of protection for which they were designed.  City planners cannot allow over 437,000 people to live in an area with such a high risk (Census 2005).  This was the same mistake made by city officials before Katrina struck, and similarly before Hurricanes Camille and Betsy.

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Evaluation of Possible Alternatives

Evaluation of Possible Alternatives

A new plan is needed; one that heads down a path that will guarantee the safety of New

Orleans residents 100 years down the road.  This is not exactly in line with the plan currently being implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers.  There proposal provides for a future dependent on an even more complex system of even higher levees and more efficient pumps and canal structures.  While these proposals are rather convincing, nothing is mentioned about solving the problem of rising sea level nor is subsidence even addressed seriously.  Very little time was dedicated to explaining why future effects of subsidence and global warming were discussed so little.  Therefore, since there plan avoided these important issues, we agree that there was value in formulating a proposal that was independent of any actions or plans carried out by the Army Corps after Katrina hit.

As a class, therefore we have carefully considered and estimated pros and cons for the entire spectrum of possibilities we could think of that might accomplish our goal.  We attempted to consider everything – rebuilding and improving the city to abandoning the city as a residential sector and spreading the city’s economy over Baton Rouge and the Port of South Louisiana.  Our third option was to preserve only part of the city by stripping it of its suburbs and providing for a shift in its transportation economy to the nearby Port of South Louisiana.

Rebuilding and improving the entire city would be the plan that most closely parallels the path New Orleans is currently following.  This plan basically involves not only repairing the city but also attempting to improve so that it withstands a hurricane occurring between now and 100 years.  Although their explanation of a “100 year elevation” has not been found, the USACE claims to be building a system capable of withstanding this hurricane that will cost over $6 billion in contract costs (Schwartz, 2006).  The devastated areas of the city would have to be rebuilt.  In addition, the residents would have to be convinced that their city was safe to invest their property.  This plan could also include provisions for filling in and developing the marshes currently sparsely populatied but yet within the levees system, such as parts of St. Bernard Parish

We also shied away from completely abandoning the city, because this would mean turning our backs on one of the top tourist cities in the nation.  This would be a huge loss to Louisiana’s economy since last year tourism brought in $5 Billion (Forbes).  In fact tourism, prior to Katrina and Rita, tourism was the fastest growing part of New Orleans economy, accounting for 14% of the city’s economy (Career Journal, 2005).  Although it is possible to relocate major port activity and other transportation methods to safer ground farther up the river, tourism lacks that portability.  Additionally if the city was to be closed off from rebuilding entirely, the entire city would have to be taken apart and salvaged as much as possible for reuse elsewhere.  The costs for this are difficult to quantify with much accuracy.  To simply put it into perspective, however, Katrina created 2 Billion cubic meters of debris in total (Hundley, 2005).  The Army Corps estimates that removal of each cubic meter costs between $10 and $20.  Using this data, cleaning up Katrina’s mess in New Orleans could be as much as $40 Billion dollars (USACE).  This simply goes to show that the cost of relocating the entire city will be a very costly figure.  Finally, if the government were to zone off New Orleans, then the costs of compensation for everybody would be enormous.  The government would have to put that land to a very profitable use in order for it to be possible from an economical standpoint.

Therefore, after careful debate and comparison between these three options, we agreed that it was in the city’s best interests to rebuild only certain parts while zoning off the rest for other uses.  Our final proposal is a conglomeration of the best ideas discussed and provides for all the major issues we decided were most important while at the same time is rooted in its core objective: rebuilding a safe New Orleans.  Because of safety reasons, the residential suburbs of New Orleans will be zoned off by the government for various uses including museums, ecological parks and environmental research.  Since the city will no longer be capable of sustaining major port functions, the international Port of New Orleans will be moved up the river to the Port of South Louisiana and Baton Rouge.  Ships will have to travel slightly father, but if the companies are given adequate incentive, the workers and their families will follow.  With careful city planning right now, the areas around the Port of South Louisiana can be developed into sustainable urban land.  The trains that currently transport goods to the Midwest states will be rerouted to Baton Rouge and the Port of South Louisiana.  Although both these areas are capable of absorbing extra residential growth Baton Rouge appears to offer a better transition for residents of New Orleans because many residents of New Orleans have already moved there.  In addition our class has come up with a plan for aiding the residents in finding new homes and jobs.  This committee is fittingly called the Citizens Relocation Committee (CRC).

For economical reasons, the city of New Orleans will be restructured around tourism.  Important buildings must be kept intact and city building codes must restrict the modernization of various parts of the city.  If there are certain buildings that were partly destroyed but still standing, there preservation would make excellent additions to their collection of interesting architecture.  In this way the city will have another famous piece of history to lure tourists.  A memorial could be set up as an addition to a museum that allowed visitors to relive Hurricane Katrina through interactive exhibits, pictures, and possibly an Imax experience.  This will only make the tourists excited about visiting these areas in person.

In order to determine which areas to not rebuild, we chose certain criteria to base our decisions on.  Since it was the future we were planning for, we chose to focus on predicted subsidence rates, current elevations, severity of damage done by Katrina, and cultural significance.  A compilation of data on these criteria can be found here.  The reason that only certain criteria is discussed with reference to the our final proposal, is because a few of them are more useful for deciding on how best to rebuild the city given a year of intense rebuilding has already gone by.  Areas with subsidence rates above 4 mm/year, an elevation of at least .5 ft below sea level, and that sustained over 50% major damage from Katrina were singled out as prime candidates for zoning off.  The districts that qualified were: Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East, Village de L’est, Venetian Isles, Mid City, Bywater, the Lower Ninth Ward, northern portions of Jefferson, and Plaquemines.  Several of these were removed from this severance list later for specific reasons.  The Lower Ninth Ward was removed because the damage done there was due to engineering failures in the levee system along the East bank of the Industrial Canal.  Moreover, it is 1 foot above sea level, not to mention that Holy Cross has been designated as a National Historic Site (NOLANRP).  (The Lower Ninth Ward discussed in greater depth later on.)  Mid City and Bywater were also removed because they were flooded as a result of breeches on the West side of the Industrial Canal.  By downsizing, more money can go towards installing canal closures at the mouth of the Industrial Canal, the Intercoastal Waterway that will keep the water levels from surging and overtopping the levees along the Industrial Canal. Also, very few houses have been sold and little demolition has occurred in all three of these districts (Times Picayune Interactive map).  In the end, the districts that lent themselves most to further deconstruction rather than reconstruction were Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East, Village D’Lest, Venetian Isles, northern portions of Jefferson, and Plaquemines Parish.  Therefore the districts we decided to keep and rebuild after Katrina were Uptown, Old Carrollton, Central Business District, Broadmoor, the French Quarter, Mid City, Bywaters, southern portions of Jefferson and the Lower Ninth Ward.

Although our focus was on Orleans Parish, this study was also applied to a few neighboring parishes: St. Bernard, Jefferson, and Plaquemines.  For Jefferson, it was determined that because of average subsidence rates of over 6 mm/year and elevation around 3 feet below sea level (Greater New Orleans), the parts farther North than Interstate 10 should not be rebuilt.  However, if areas right along the river were properly protected, then these would also be eligible for rebuilding rather than zoning off for uses other than residential.  According to data collected in the EDC, the cost of rebuilding the levees in Plaquemines ($1125 million) relative to its population (26,765) is 11 times less cost-effective than the $1885 million levees built to protect Orleans Parish’s population of 484,674 residents. (The population figure is from the Census 2000 and has since gone down closer to an estimated 437,186 by the Census 2005).  This area is altogether too exposed to any category of hurricane that rebuilding Plaquemines would be illogical.  The West Bank including Algiers was affected by the hurricane.  However with proper protection both sides of the river can be maintained and protected for the future.  Elevation on this side of the river is lower than the average level of New Orleans however it is not a determining factor because it is not located along a major body of water other than the Mississippi that is affected by storm surges.  As a result the West Bank is inexpensive to protect relative to the other districts along the lakes.  Therefore, future studies should look into filling in and providing flood protection to the West Bank of Jefferson Parish.  As for St. Bernard, It has the similar statistics as Jefferson but with less developed wetlands protecting it and sustained more damage.  Therefore, our Vision proposes temporarily zoning off all of St. Bernard Parish.  Before any rebuilding in this area begins, it is very important that the land is deemed safe for 100 years into the future.  Further consideration can be given towards filling in more land along the river for development.  For these reasons, the Vision should provide for the rebuilding of the West Bank, Jefferson Parish under Interstate 10, and after it has been properly filled and protected, St. Bernard Parish should be rebuilt inside of its inner levees.  In addition, further consideration should be given towards filling in and developing the West Bank of Jefferson Parish along the river.  Plaquemines Parish should be abandoned completely and its levees moved to protect the West Bank, and St. Bernard Parish. Even though the districts we are keeping do not have as bad subsidence rates, they still are sinking at an average rate of 5 mm/yr (Burkett).  Since some of these neighborhoods have already been destroyed by Katrina, our plan will require that these be filled in with of compacted dirt to acceptable FEMA standards before rebuilding begins.  Accordingly, financial aid could be offered to encourage any future private rebuilding projects to first fill in the land.  Regulations such as this will only provide for an even better future.  Without a doubt, a strategy such as this would be a perfect addition to the rebuilding plan of the neighborhoods within The Lower Ninth Ward.

Hurricane and Flood Protection

According to an article released soon after Katrina, most of the city and state officials agreed that it was mandatory for flood protection levels to be increased to Category 5.  In that same article, it was estimated that upgrading New Orleans levees to category 5 would cost between $10 billion and $20 billion (Steinhauer, 2005).  As mentioned earlier, the Flood Risk Education Alliance (FREA) explains that older levees are more expensive to maintain and more likely to fail.  Fittingly, these were the very reasons cited by the Army Corps as the main causes for levee failure.   

In contrast, we propose building a 15 foot earthen levee that extends from the IHNC on the east to the Jefferson West levee in the west.  Our plan proposes leaving the estimated 57 miles of earthen levees and 9 miles of floodwalls protecting New Orleans East, Village de L’est, and Venetian Isles (IPET) and also the levees along Jefferson, Lakeview, and Gentilly.  Instead of draining FEMA’s budget on vast levees that are costly to maintain, the Vision allows the government to focus on protecting a much smaller area.  The best path this levee should follow requires on-site research; however by inspection of various maps including GIS and Google Earth our best proposal was that it be constructed on the North side of Interstate 10.  The levee will extend less than 20 miles along the free way and everything north of it will have to be relocated.  Emergency pump systems will be moved to these levees and regular pumps will still be used to send water out of historical New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne through canals already in place.  St. Bernard Parish must wait until it is ready for residents to move in as soon as possible. The Vision plans to temporarily zone off the Lower Ninth Ward until it is filled in above sea level and the levees already around the land closest to the river are built up to 15 feet.  For now we will only be rebuilding the levees up till Violet Canal, which connects the Mississippi to Lake Borgne.  The levee will be continued along Violet Canal till it meets with the Mississippi River and secures the land our plan proposes rebuilt.  Only then will the entire area be opened up for development.

The levees we propose putting in will create multiple layers of defense for the historic portions of New Orleans.  Not only will the city be guaranteed safe against hurricanes and floods for ten years, but, with the proper maintenance, it will be safe for at least 100 years.  It is also very important that the levees constructed are made from rolled clay rather than hydraulic filled sand and silt because the rolled clay levees held up much better during Katrina and Rita (IPET).  The levees surrounding New Orleans East, Village D L’est, and Venetian Isles will also remain intact so that they can help protect those areas from being lost to the rising sea level.    Pump stations also need to be modernized.  Some of the city drainage pumps were installed in the 1960’s and consequently are lacking significant advances in technology (IPET).  For example, pumps throughout the city need to be built with alternate sources of power supply so that if the city’s electricity is down during a storm, the pumps can draw from this energy source.  As of right now, all the pumps run on either diesel or electricity and none of them have alternate power sources.  We propose incorporating solar panels for storing energy for emergency use.  In order to protect these panels from heavy wind damage, it would not be best to put them on the roof, they should.  Even though the city will be downsized it is still important that the pumps already built remain in their present locations so that water drainage from the city can be let out into Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne.  In addition, new pumps equipped with alternate energy sources should be installed along the levees constructed along Interstate 10 in case of emergencies related to flooding and/or heavy precipitation.  A necessary addition would be the installation of large sluice gates at every place where the city’s canals cut through the new levees.  These gates would be equipped with pumps on either side for sending water over the levees and into the canal on the other side.

Other considerations to consider include models and calculations made for the new levees.   Since our plan provides for basically leaving the strong levees and pump systems along Lake Pontchartrain as they were Pre-Katrina, the new levees will be more for future considerations, and guaranteed safety in case of emergencies.  One change that the Vision would have made to Lakeview’s protection system is to transplant the pumps that were at the southern ends of the canals up to the mouth of the canal, right on the levee.  Another proposal included in the Vision is to put either sluice gates or permanent canal closures equipped with pumps at the ends of each of the canals flowing into either Lake Borgne or Lake Pontchartrain. Therefore, it would be unnecessary to build neither the current levee system nor the Vision system to heights capable of withstanding a strong category 5 hurricane with future sea level rise and subsidence predictions taken into account.  Armoring at least the back side would be a good future project, although it is unlikely that it would serve much of a purpose until then.  However, it is paramount that the relocated levees are built so that future generations can confidently add to them as necessary if they were to need to rely on them as primary flood protection.

A major benefit of rebuilding the levees is that residents of the city will feel much more secure.  Not only will there be multiple lines of defense, but the new levees will be able to be guaranteed by its builders.  This will be a refreshing change from the ancient, patchwork levees that surrounded New Orleans before Katrina.  By implementing this plan, the residents of New Orleans will feel safe and home insurance rates will plummet, leading towards more economic living conditions.

In addition to levees, approximately $10.6 billion has been spent rebuilding homes (FEMA 2006).  Although relocating will be very expensive, it will be a short term cost that will prove to be much cheaper in the long run than the plan currently being carried out in New Orleans.  The federal government will be able to protect the smaller city with much less, because the savings in lesser maintenance and repair costs will add up over the years.

Zoning off all these districts would really have worked had it been done right after Katrina, because according to the Times Picayune Interactive Map.  These same areas also have reported selling the most houses and have been given the most demolition permits.  This shows that if the government had enforced zoning laws from the beginning, the people in these areas would have responded favorably and many of them would have agreed to sell their land to the government and start up a new life elsewhere.  It is possible that the residents of the areas impacted most were convinced that living nearby downtown New Orleans was not worth the risk.

   Slimming a city’s population by geography inevitably alters demographic and household income diversity, creating severe effects to a city’s economy.  The areas of safer geography happen to belong to a wealthier subpopulation of New Orleans than the areas designated for land reuse. Compensation for the discrepancy can be achieved in many ways: government subsidized housing, mixed-income residential communities, and dedicating massively damaged areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward to residential development. Government subsidized housing will give returning and relocating citizens the opportunity to return to a safer part of the city. Integrated housing complexes will include commercial attractions in addition to spacious, structurally sound apartments offered at affordable rates.  To read more about government subsidized housing, please see Team 7’s site.   More prevalent than government subsidized housing will be mixed- income housing.  For a city so split by social differences, an integrated community will improve the average quality of life.   Moreover, this will maintain an even economy for New Orleans’ future.  In addition, the lower ninth ward will be converted from a primarily low-income neighborhood to one more suitable to all classes.  The extreme destruction to the area after hurricane Katrina leaves room for more thoughtful redevelopment, such as residential communities for those displaced by the heavily zoned surrounding neighborhoods.

If the city and the federal government were no longer faced with the various difficulties involved with the protection of these areas, then more money and effort could be focused on protecting a more compact city.  In fact, once the suburbs our cleared, they will also serve as a buffer for protecting the remaining sector of the city.  Yet the more historical parts of the city along the river will be protected.  Additionally, it is important to note that the more historic portions of the city are all located along the banks of the Mississippi which was left mostly untouched by Hurricane Katrina. Therefore, these areas are located within the districts that are to be rebuilt.   In fact the area along the river is about one foot above sea level and has lower subsidence rates than any where else in the city.  It is also worth noting that our plan at least provides for the survival of New Orleans culture.  People would much rather have the heart of New Orleans live on then sacrifice it as a whole right away.

In addition by not rebuilding these areas, we have turned dangerous residential areas into storm surge breakers that, if the first line of defense were topped, are capable of serving a similar purpose to that of the wetlands.  In the case of a catastrophic Hurricane, this extra line of defense will ensure that the city will not be flooded from the outside.

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Considerations and Conclusion

Although historic New Orleans will be preserved there certainly are important parts of the city that will have to be relocated.  For example, The University of New Orleans currently has its East campus located on the northeastern tip of Gentilly.  Or take the example of Six Flags New Orleans that is located in Village de L’est, the district with the highest subsidence rates of Orleans Parish.  According to Six Flags homepage, they have already chosen to abandon their new location outside of New Orleans. These are just a couple examples, but if the Vision was to be implemented, many other buildings and businesses would be forced to relocate.

For reasons such as relocation, enforcing such a plan will undoubtedly encounter significant opposition. If reasons are well publicized and the citizens and businesses realize that it is in their best interests to relocate as soon as possible, then this is a plan that can be carried through. Of course, any proposal in this case will be highly controversial because it depends on what the critic considers most important.  The Vision was formed by viewing the situation with safety as the priority.  Based on their methods between August 29, 2005 and today, the city and federal governments currently appear to be viewing the situation with economy as the priority.  Hence, our planning process produced a Vision very unique to that which is currently underway.

Until a system for either defeating or significantly diminishing hurricanes is invented in the near future, it is important for the government to realize that in the long-term, the size of Pre-Katrina New Orleans cannot be guaranteed adequate protection.  The government is not able nor has it displayed willingness to spend $10 to $20 billion dollars on a durable levee system and it might not be the best way to spend our nation’s tax dollars.  Katrina and Rita have proved to everyone that if a city partially under sea level and surrounded by oceans and a river cannot guarantee 100% protection to its residents, a smaller city altogether is a necessity.  It is time to face the reality of the scientific predictions and begin implementing a plan to downsize New Orleans right now when major demolition costs have already been covered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The Vision is not simply an idea that our class came up with in a couple of days.  This is the result of a semester of research, collaboration, and decision making.  Moreover, we are not the only ones who have thought of this.  A report published in August of 2006 reiterates our plan by agreeing thatThe new city is certain to be smaller in size and population. A smaller size will make it easier to provide police, fire, and other essential services.” (Waugh, Smith, 2006).

After inspecting the results produced by our EDC and evaluating the various alternatives, it was quite clear that Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East, Village de L’est, and the Northern portion of Jefferson should not be rebuilt.  A satisfactory boundary between zoned off areas and land to be rebuilt appears to be Interstate 10.  In the long run, downsizing the size of New Orleans will be significantly cheaper than the option currently in place which is projected to spend around $6 billion on hurricane protection (IPET), and around $10.6 billion for private property losses (FEMA, 2006).  River portions of St. Bernard Parish will be considered for future development, and Plaquemines will be abandoned.  The levees built to protect Plaquemines, New Orleans East, Venetian Isles, and Village de L’est will also remain for now in order to mitigate loss of coastal land to the sea.    The Vision provides a sustainable future for New Orleans that can only be attained by learning from past costly mistakes and taking into account the environment considerations which will determine the historical city of New Orleans 100 years from now.  The Vision is an interesting alternative that is worth seriously looking farther into.  Its time the city planners and governments in charge of rebuilding New Orleans examine the predicted rises in subsidence rates and sea level.  The destruction caused by Katrina and Rita gave them an opportunity to rethink their lofty economical plans of development.  Unfortunately, that is an quickly becoming less and less of an option.  The Vision, however, focuses on building an improved Katrina from the wake of the most costly storm to have ever hit the United States.  Using past trends as warning, future predictions as motivation and current data to make decisions we believe that this proposal is a step in the right direction, a direction that New Orleans must take before more costly mistakes are made.