A few days ago, I posted a blog about “The despised MR-GO.” Someone using the name “steve” posted this reply:
“Plugging the MR-GO will not solve all the issues, I get that. Ivor van Heerden is not 100% qualified to come up with a total civil engineering plan save the city, I get that too. Something needs to be done. Even if Ivor van Heerden is not qualifed is there a better voice? Is he half right? What do you think can be done? Can the city really be protected? Point us toward some qualified answers. I would like to see your ideas.”
Okay, regarding Ivor van Heerden, I gave a full explanation on an earlier post, but to recap, he simply is not qualified because he is not an engineer. Now you might want to seek medical advice from people who are not doctors, and they might even give you good advice from time to time, but I’m not willing to risk it all on a geologist when we need world-class engineering here. Who then? I have the utmost respect for Tom Jackson, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, currently on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East Bank.
A big part of the problem here is communication. Levee safety is a complex subject. Just as I wouldn’t expect the public to understand in any detail how the Empire State Building is able to withstand wind and gravity forces, I really don’t think the average person on the street can ever understand all the ins and outs of hurricane forces and structures to protect us. At some point the public is going to need to let engineers do their jobs.
And before anyone jumps on that bandwagon and yells, “But it was misplaced trust in engineering that got us where we are now,” let me remind everyone that there were many engineers who proposed several alternatives to the hurricane protection system that we ended up with. I do not defend the oversights and shortcomings of my peers who failed us here, but I am of the opinion that we allowed ourselves to be guided by politics, short-sighted planning and false economy when we should have been listening to good engineers.
What can be done? I think we need to take a long-range, universal view of hurricane protection. We can’t expect levees to do it all. We can’t really believe that we can plant grass to stop a storm surge. We have to adopt and enact a full range of strategies to protect ourselves. This should include:
1. Significant levee protection. Not just a 100-year levee at our back door, but multiple lines of levees to an appropriate level of protection. Highly developed, densely populated areas should get 1,000-year levees at the least.
2. Rational levee alignments. Have you ever seen a map of levee alignments? It looks like a 3-year-old’s drawing of clouds. For decades, we’ve allowed politics to place the levees, and we end up with the famous “funnel” where the MRGO levee meets the GIWW levee. Every hydraulic engineer on the planet knows how stupid that is. Dutch engineers I’ve spoken to are amazed at how long and jagged our levees are. They know that levees need to laid out to be as short and smooth as possible on the map. Shorter lengths mean fewer places for potential problems, and smooth alignments mean no more funnels where storm surge concentrates.
3. Raised construction in the flood plain. Okay, so we managed to get away with slab-on-grade construction in the New Orleans area for a few decades. We were lucky. Now that we know how sudden and catastrophic a flood can be, can we please start building our homes up off the ground? Even before Katrina and the levee failures, houses in the New Orleans area would flood when there was a hard rain. I’m talking May 3, 1978, May 8, 1995, etc. We need to elevate. NOW.
4. Evacuate! When the National Weather Service says it’s going to be bad, please, get out of town. Even if we have great levees, even if we have elevated houses, nobody should be betting their lives on them. Ask anyone who stayed for Katrina: evacuation is a lot easier and safer.
Can the city really be protected? If you’re asking for foolproof, 100% protection, the answer is, “No.” Just as there is no foolproof, 100% safe automobile, medicine, or anything else, don’t even ask for a perfect hurricane protection.
I do think we can do much, much better that we have up to now. I do think that with a concerted, cooperative effort between citizens and government at the local, state and federal levels, we can do this.