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The Corps of New Orleans

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There may be no better way to acknowledge Hurricane Katrina’s fifth anniversary than to admit it offers a partial answer to that age-old paradox: What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Things break.

The Cat-3 storm’s power was such that it buckled levees and caved seawalls; these hardened landscapes were no match for its force. Why do we continue to pour billions of dollars into the construction of new concrete structures along the Gulf, touting them as a fail-safe strategy to sustain human life on this imperiled shore?

Some startling clues emerge in Craig Colten’s detailed study of the role the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers has played in providing hurricane protection on the Gulf. The most ironic clue: Every time a Corps-built system has failed, it has been reconstructed. The more levees that collapse, the more levees we build.

This terrifying pattern of devastation and rebirth is neatly captured in one of the storm-tracking maps that accompany Colten’s book: Between 1945 and 1960, 16 cyclones spun across the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before crashing into Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. So many lines dot-and-dash their way across the illustration that it looks as if Nature was using this waterlogged region for target practice.

Perilous Place, Powerful Storms offers an intriguing explanation of why people have chosen to make themselves so vulnerable by probing public reactions to policy-making activities after the floodwaters drained away. In March 1956, for instance, the Corps held hearings in New Orleans and learned it needed to act fast. As one witness argued, much more robust facilities were required because “new dwellings by the thousands” had been constructed in areas that in the succeeding years had flooded; should the levees along Pontchartrain fail, he predicted, their collapse would “endanger the lives and property of untold amounts.”

His theory received a quick test a few months later with Hurricane Flossy, which arrived packing winds of 110 m.p.h. and churning up a 13-foot surge. Most of the southeastern portion of the Pelican State went underwater; levees were overtopped; thousands fled to higher ground. The consensus that grew out of the damage and danger was simple: This hurricane-prone area must be defended at all costs.

Tabulating those escalating expenses—environmental and human—has been a central concern of Colten’s recent scholarship. A geology professor at LSU, he has written extensively about the costs associated with a Louisiana made up of levees, channels, ditches and seawalls. In Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (2005), he tracked the Sisypheon labor of draining the city’s swamps, constructing elaborate pumping systems to keep them dry, and erecting ever-taller bulwarks against rampaging waters. Each action, predicated on the assumption that technology trumped nature, required ever-larger financial outlays from local, state and federal sources. As these investments increased, so did the commitment to their presumed impact. Few doubted that this was money wisely spent because almost no one challenged the wisdom of protecting communities located on such dangerous terrain.

The Corps is the chief champion of the human capacity to manage nature’s fearsome force. Indeed, this book underscores its faith in an engineered environment: The Corps contracted with Colten to write a history of its flood-protection activities in Louisiana, believing that such a narrative would delineate its legendary role in defending the built landscape. Perilous Place, in this regard, does not disappoint; it provides a careful account of the evolution of the federal agency’s actions and the shifting political context in which they were shaped.

Yet the Corps was not always in the business of flood protection. As Colten recounts, its original mission was to maintain the navigability of the nation’s rivers, reworking “natural systems to serve human needs.” Manipulating streamflow, it turns out, was relatively straightforward. Ensuring that these waters did not slosh into St. Louis or Vicksburg or New Orleans was another matter. Still, in the late 19th century, Congress expanded the Corps’ responsibilities to include building levees to hold back ravaging rivers. Its decision had momentous consequences. Expensive to build and maintain, levees also “consume land that might be put to other purposes,” an investment that creates a “path dependence on their builders.” Once constructed, they are almost impossible to remove or modify because their very presence encourages development at the base of their seemingly solid banks. As people poured into former floodplains, the Corps and the community locked themselves into a never-ending cycle of paying for the construction of additional barriers. That’s why, if “an extreme event overwhelms the structures,” Colten observes, “calamity follows.”

Disasters begat disasters. The devastating 1927 floods that scoured the Mississippi River Valley reinforced the collective commitment to levees as the only line of defense, a behavioral response that the Corps repeated in its later strategy to shore up the Gulf Coast. The bulk of Perilous Place is devoted to a step-by-step discussion of these strategic decisions.

To do so required data, and in the late 1940s the Corps created the so-called “standard project storm,” projections its scientists have employed to estimate the hurricanes’ intensity and the damage they might inflict. This information became the foundation for what its engineers believed would be a near-impenetrable zone around New Orleans and downstream parishes. On this marshy, flat and windswept ground, the Corps has been erecting an American Maginot Line.

The responsibility for this flawed project was not the Corps’ alone. Colten is particularly good at identifying the persistent pressure elected officials and frightened citizens have placed on the agency: Each storm has reinforced the public’s anxious calls for more preventative measures; politicians have been complicit in the creation of a Rube Goldberg-like maze of flood-control structures and a matching bureaucratic tangle.

Not surprisingly, the system’s intricacy has worked against its success, as Katrina so bluntly exposed. Yet in that whirlwind’s shocking aftermath, the Corps and the local communities arrived at a time-honored conclusion­—pour more concrete, simultaneously to harden the land and its people’s resolve.

Learn more about a citizen’s group in New Orleans challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at levees.org.

Char Miller is director of the environmental analysis program at Pomona College; he is editor of the forthcoming Cites and Nature in the American West.