Monday, January 26, 2009

Its rightful place for New Orleans

Tucked into the rich folds of his inaugural speech, it was almost too easy to miss what in the long run may be the most significant and far-reaching change in policy made by President Barack Obama.

To be sure, his acknowledgement of “when the levees break” was encouraging to those of us who have already suffered such woes. It reveals the import of such events in the new president’s mind--in great contrast to his predecessor who made no mention of such issues in successive State of the Union addresses.

But what could have far greater impact on us in the recovering city of New Orleans, and all of America for that matter, is the president’s plan to rededicate our efforts to the most successful investigatory tool ever devised.

In the heart of his inaugural address, the president outlined his vision for America including his goals of reviving a struggling economy, building infrastructure, bolstering public education and harnessing alternative energy.

And that’s where he also said: “We’ll restore science to its rightful place.”

I am not the only person to seize upon those words and all the promise that promise incurs. Cynthia Tucker writes in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Obama’s embrace of science is cause for hope.” She recalls how not so long ago the US was the leader in scientific study and accomplishment which certainly accounts in great part for the high standard of living and abundance of wealth we enjoy compared to most of the world.

But Tucker joins me in sadly observing the current wave of anti-science. With George W. Bush as “the chief cheerleader for a rejection of reason,” Tucker notes that Americans have become “a nation of superstitious ignoramuses.”

And who could disagree? On a regular basis we are reminded that the United States lags in basic education compared with other modern nations. Religious belief remains strong and popular support for Creationism and “Intelligent Design” persists in spite of a total lack of evidence and universal scientific rejection. These are just some more commonly known examples; the list is as long as the string of letters representing human DNA.

You may wonder how reaffirming America’s support for and confidence in science could possibly be more important than significant hurricane protection. It’s nice to have science, but as far as New Orleanians are concerned, nothing trumps good levees, right?

Wrong. The two are inextricably connected. We cannot expect to have a robust hurricane protection system unless we pursue it with good science. We cannot expect to be safe without serious and studious observation and application of lessons learned.

But there are indications that superstitious citizens will not yield. Despite several studies and repeated explanations, the average citizen still clings to the false impression that the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet caused devastating flooding of New Orleans in 2005. Following Hurricane Katrina, pundits and politicians alike nicknamed the shipping channel “the hurricane super highway.” With no science to support the claim and ample evidence against it, the popular notion survives undaunted. Even the junior senator from Louisiana, a person one would hope we could look to for leadership and vision, suffers from belief in this irrational myth.

In another highly visible example, National Geographic posted the Internet story “A City's Faulty Armor” in April 2007. The story features the criticism of engineering professor Bob Bea, who boldly declares the new floodwall constructed to protect the Lower Ninth Ward will not stand against future storms.

Dr. Bea offers no scientific basis for his condemnation of the new wall. There is no mention of soil testing, laboratory analysis, model tests or calculations of any kind.

The only evidence offered by Dr. Bea, according to National Geographic, was a taste test.

Yes--a taste test. Bob Bea, who also happens to be an expert witness in litigation against the government, saw puddle water in the road near the wall and speculated it could be seepage coming from the Industrial Canal on the other side of the wall. To test his hypothesis, he tasted the gutter water and declared it “tasted salty.”

If there is any doubt in the foolishness of Dr. Bea’s methods and conclusions, we only need to remember Hurricane Gustav’s assault on September 1, 2008. Water filled the Industrial Canal almost to the top of the walls and waves splashed over for several hours. Despite dire predictions, the walls did not budge. Gustav killed 43 people in Louisiana but could not breach a single floodwall in New Orleans.

It is an embarrassment to the engineering profession that any engineer practicing in the 21st century would actually form an opinion on the stability of a concrete floodwall based on a taste test of gutter water. And it is testimony to how far this nation’s esteem for science has fallen when a national magazine dedicated to scientific study can publish such blatant quackery as serious inquiry.

Now that President Obama has staked out a position in support of science, I have great hope that the United States will change its path. I have great hope that science, and engineering as well, will find its rightful place in the rebuilding of America and especially in the fortification of New Orleans against future storms.


Clay said...

Couple of nitpicky points:

The MR-GO surge is still a bone of contention:

Not all surge modeling show that it didn't have an effect. Also, don't forget about all the wetlands that would have been there, but were killed by saltwater intrusion.

Second, I wouldn't embrace Gustav's test of the system just yet. Honestly, I'd be questioning the fundamental design basis of the levees [the "100-Year-Storm" fallacy] if a comparatively weak storm could completely fill the channel like that. Also, remember that Southern Scrap had a bunch of barges loose in the canal. We got lucky they got caught up on interior structures and didn't hit the walls. Would you really like to see if those floodwalls can hold with a few barges banging up against them?

Tim said...


Thanks for the thoughtful counterpoints. I heard about Ivor Van Heerden's claims but I have not had the opportunity to see his research. If anyone has a link I'd be glad to review it. There's not enough information in a newspaper article to form any opinion about it.

Right now the most compelling research on storm surge and wave modeling I've seen is the work of Johannes Westerink of Notre Dame and Rick Luettich of the University of North Carolina. They created the ADCIRC program that LSU and others use. And Westerink says the MR-GO had little or no effect on flooding in St. Bernard and New Orleans East.

Yes, you hear a lot about the MR-GO's contribution to land loss, which is a fact. But under examination you'll see that it only represents a small amount of total coastal Louisiana land loss, and that further, even if the MR-GO had never existed Hurricane Katrina would still have barreled through and over the levees in St. Bernard and New Orleans East like a runaway freight train.

Take a look at this map from USGS:

The areas in red show the total land loss from 1932 to 2000. Notice the vast majority of land last is to the west of the Mississippi River and around the mouth of the river. Notice also the degradation of marsh on either side of the MR-GO represents very little land when compared to a storm surge on the scale of Hurricane Katrina.

If the MR-GO had never been constructed, how much marsh would stand between the St. Bernard levees and Lake Borgne? Scaling off the USGS map, I would say no more than 4 miles in the best location, almost zero in the worst. So how much would solid, healthy marsh help in that area?

Second, I completely agree that Gustav's test of the system is not conclusive. I am not satisfied and I know we all agree that there is still a lot of work to do. I've been complaining about the 1% design standard for years. I'm hoping the new president will do something about that.

What I am saying here is that people who said the new wall in the Lower Ninth Ward would fail catastrophically were wrong. That wall was loaded almost to the top with absolutely no signs of distress.



Clay said...

Ivor has his limitations, but this is right up his alley. I was at the Tulane Engineering Forum when the PHD students that designed the model (the main guy was an Indian guy whose name I can't remember) presented the findings of their modeling and it looked pretty persuasive. That's really as much a questions to the geologists as engineers. At the same conference, there was a Dutch engineer who spoke of the 'foolishness of letting the enemy into your own backyard unabated.'

Other than that, all great points.

Amy said...

I really enjoyed this post! I am relieved to have a President that believes in science. As a mother of an autistic child, though highly functioning - I was ashamed and embarrassed by GWBs stance on science.

My mother in law believes Katrina happened because New Orleans is an evil city. Imagine how thrilled she was when we moved here, then called her and told her we had. :)


Sophmom said...

Count me among those who thought that the MRGO/GIWW "funnel" caused "massive flooding". I look forward to reading the work to which you link, but not right this sleepy minute. You're so right about science v. anti-science. Let's hope our recovery from that, um, setback, is swift. My best to your ladies. I hope y'all've had a great start to this new year. Peace, darlin'.

LMAO - my word verification is "urvocal" - I kid you not!

Clay said...

Here's the presentation I was ranting and raving about. It was presented to a standing room only audience of engineers at the 2006 Tulane Engineering Forum.

It was presented by Hassan Mashriqui (PHD/PE). The PDF version of the presentation misses the animations, but the last few slides go through how he demonstrated that MR-GO magnified the effects of Katrina by a factor of 2 or 3, or so he claims.

I'd love to see the differences between this surge model and the Corps.

Tim said...


I think you misspoke: According to this ppt, Dr. Mashriqui concludes that the MRGO allowed the Katrina storm surge to "reach New Orleans 2 to 3 times faster." That's entirely different than magnifying the effects as you note.

I did not see his presentation, so it's difficult to comment just on what's on the slides. Also, I think Dr. Mashriqui is an expert witness in an ongoing lawsuit against the government, so I'd rather not drive too far down this road.

I will only say I see nothing in Dr. Mashriqui's slides that would compel me to change my opinion that the MRGO had little effect in Hurricane Katrina.



Clay said...

The last little point that was said during the lecture (not on the slides) was the equation for kinetic energy:


Double the velocity, quadruple the kinetic energy. Triple the velocity, you get 9 times the force...