Opinion

Commentary: On Katrina's fourth anniversary, levee repairs must be a priority

A concrete floodwall separates the Industrial Canal of New Orleans from the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008. The failure of levees along the canal inundated the Lower 9th Ward with deep floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/MCT)
A concrete floodwall separates the Industrial Canal of New Orleans from the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008. The failure of levees along the canal inundated the Lower 9th Ward with deep floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/MCT) MCT

Saturday morning, the city of New Orleans will ring a bell signifying the first breach in the levees in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina landed. If the now traditional ringing follows the findings of a U.S. Senate investigative report, it will take place by 8:30 a.m. — when the regional office of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, got the first reports that "a twenty-foot tidal surge … came up and breached the levee system."

What followed, according to the Senate findings, was a steady stream of reports of levee failures: at 9:08 a.m., from the Transportation Security Administration; at 9:14 a.m., from the National Weather service; at 9:36 a.m. from a FEMA coordinator; at 10:12 a.m., from a FEMA special assistant; at 11:51 a.m. again from FEMA. On and on.

Between noon and 5 p.m., levee breaches and severe flooding were reported by the American Red Cross, the Louisiana State Police, the National Weather Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security. Yet by 6 p.m., the Homeland Security Operation Center was reporting "levees had not been breached" and at 9 p.m. then-FEMA chief Michael Brown said: "I'm not going to call them breaches, we have … spill over."

On this fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the levee failures are important to remember. In testimony before Congress last week, Allison Plyler, deputy director of the New Orleans Community Data Center, noted: "By all available measures, Katrina and the related levee failures resulted in the largest residential disaster in U.S. history. Estimates of total damages range from $96 billion to $135 billion."

More important, and tragically so, more than 1,460 people died because of the havoc wreaked by Katrina — and Rita, which came along about a month later. But if the levees had held, most would probably still be alive.

Federal meteorologists now say New Orleans did not get the full brunt of Katrina. The strongest winds passed dozens of miles east of the city. Data showed flood walls of the levees were poorly constructed. Louisiana State University researchers said the water never got to the top of flood walls as some claimed. Properly constructed flood walls would have contained it.

This data should scare the dickens out of us. Experts say 43 percent of Americans live in a county that is protected by levees, and 28 states have levees that likely would fail in a flood.

In fact, a report this year shows little has been done to address the frailties of the nation's estimated 100,000 miles of levees. The 2009 American Society of Civil Engineers' report gave the nation's levees a D-, noting that risk to the public's safety from levee failures has skyrocketed because of the increase in developed areas behind the levees. Many levees are more than 50 years old and were originally built to protect crops from flooding.

We in North Carolina have dams. But we still have reason to worry. The report said the levee problems are just a window into the larger infrastructure crisis in this country — the result of deferred maintenance for decades. North Carolina got a D for its dams, with the report noting the state had 1,153 high hazard dams — dams whose failure would cause a loss of life and significant property damage. Most had no emergency action plan.

The report gave several recommendations to improve the situation, including stronger education and outreach programs and better funding to address levee and other infrastructure deficiencies nationwide. One need is critical but basic: a true national inventory of federal levees, which Congress mandated after Katrina. A complete database still doesn't exist.

The images of people — in the United States — clinging to rooftops as water raged below, of rescuers in helicopters and boats plucking survivors from buildings while bodies floated about, and of old people and children begging for food and water so they wouldn't starve should be hard to forget. Sadly, some have.

But none of us can afford to forget the infrastructure failings that brought such devastation. On this anniversary, let's remember by giving these infrastructure needs the commitment and attention they deserve.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Fannie Flono is an Observer associate editor. Write her at the Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, N.C. 28230-0308. E-mail: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.

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