September 07, 2005

Mr. Bush: Tear down this levee!

From Yahoo News:

It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's seven feet under sea level, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of federal assistance for hurricane-devastated New Orleans.

Democratic lawmakers from Louisiana were quick to disagree Thursday and Hastert sought to clarify the comment during the day.

"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," the Illinois Republican said in an interview about New Orleans Wednesday with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill.

Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon called the comments irresponsible and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu urged Hastert to focus on the humanitarian crisis at hand.

I agree with Hastert. I think that the government should buy up New Orleans (at pre-Katrina prices), at least the below-sea-level parts, excepting maybe the French Quarter, and let the Mississippi take its natural course:

The delta city of New Orleans owes its very existence to the engineering transformations of the Mississippi River. Surrounded by water and wetlands, the city is ringed with a levee system that has been under construction for almost three hundred years. Much of New Orleans lies below sea level. Without its twenty foot walls, the city would be devastated by periodic floods or a major hurricane.

Not very long ago, New Orleans almost became a backwater swamp when the Mississippi River showed signs of naturally changing its course. If the river was allowed to carve a new path to the Gulf of Mexico, away from New Orleans, the port would become a dry-dock. The Corps of Engineers was called in, this time to prevent the river from changing course. Their intentions were sincere, and no one questions that New Orleans had to be saved, but, as the citizens of Grafton learned, the Mississippi can drive a hard bargain.

This should appeal to both small-government supporters and environmentalists. Let's get the meme out there!

UPDATE: Note to those who object to paying for the real estate at pre-Katrina prices: I think it would be a lot less expensive than the alternative, especially if you project a few years into the future. I haven't done the calculations, so I would greatly appreciate hearing from someone who has. (If you have a blog, I will link, otherwise post a comment.)

UPDATE: Instapundit links. Thanks! Also, he lists some Katrina lessons. Lesson #1: "Don't build your city below sea level: If you do, sooner or later it will flood. Better levees, pumps, etc. will put that day off, but not prevent it."

Posted by David Boxenhorn at September 7, 2005 04:16 PM | TrackBacks
Comments & Trackbacks

Could New Orleans have been cleared in time? Donald Sensing has a long and informative post up about whether or not New Orleans could have been evacuated in time to avert the disaster: Let’s walk the dog a little. Here...   ... more

Trackback by: Murdoc Online (This is the issue that matters the most) at September 7, 2005 07:02 PM Permalink

Will you be saying the same thing when Phoenix or Las Vegas run out of water, or when the New Madrid fault decimates the midwest?

Posted by: beloml at September 7, 2005 04:48 PM Permalink

No town on Earth is "natural", except insofar as we humans are part of the natural world.

People said Xenia would never recover, and that was BS, too. On the scale of major engineering projects, LA is a lot more unproductive for the resources it takes up and the stupidity of its positioning on a major fault. (And I'd miss it less.)

In short, I vote for a little tweaking of the levees (ie, make 'em higher), a little tweaking of the lowlands (ie, make 'em higher, maybe with support piles beneath as well as dirt on top) and a normal American rebuild.

New Orleans forever!

Posted by: Maureen at September 7, 2005 04:57 PM Permalink

The devestation in Florida from both Hurricane Andrew in 1993 and the four hurricanes last year show that any kind of property development there is sheer folly. We should evacuate everything south of Jacksonville (including DisneyWorld / Epcot / Universal), and just give it back to the Everglades and the Seminoles. Attempting to rebuild such low, swampy land prone to hurricanes is absurd.

Idjit. New Orleans is a bit more than the French Quarter and tourism. It's refineries, chemical plants, a MAJOR port, the support infrastructure to all that. Which mean employees, and their families. The money it would take to repair all that is nothing compared to what it would take to rebuild the entire shebang elsewhere. As I said when someone else raised the same issue, "They'll rebuild N.O. because it's cheaper to loan folks the money to rebuild than it is to buy them out or pay to resettle them elsewhere."

But hey, a big "thank you" to you and Hastor the Unspeakable -- for trying to raise my taxes to pay for all that. I'll try not to return the favor sometime.

Posted by: ubu at September 7, 2005 05:01 PM Permalink

New Orleans is one of the most important port cities in America. It's not going anywhere. It's at the mouth of the 1400 mile long inland waterway system, exactly where it needs to be. If 20 billion needs to be spent on super-levees, that's a lot cheaper than abandoning the real estate of half a city and rebuilding elsewhere.

Posted by: Dan at September 7, 2005 05:08 PM Permalink

While a flood is different to an earthquake, if cities or towns were so altered by the next New Madrid-type earthquake; yes. After the last major Mississpippi River flood, several twons were totally abandoned and relocated to higher ground.

And what happened to NOLA is not really a flood, it's a submergence. The waters will not recede on their own as they do along the Mississippi, the water must be removed and retained artificially. The next Cat-4 or Cat-5 hurricane could be next year, in ten years, or in October of this year.

Also, what happens when only one out of three or four homeowners choose to rebuild? Leave gaping holes in the cityscape and expend precious resources to spread-out restored city services and restored infastructure through sparsely rebuilt neighborhoods. That makes no sense. My prediction is that 40-50% of the population of NOLA will not return, as they did not return after the Galvaston Flood. This will leave many unrebuilt homes, and sparsely-repopulated neighborhoods. Better to plan modern and improved neighborhoods for those who choose to return than to "simply" rebuilt the pre-submergence.

This is not an short-term evacuation, we are witness to a not seen since the Dust Bowl or the Great Migration to the North.

Posted by: Ted B. at September 7, 2005 05:15 PM Permalink

Here's my theory: we've got a city that is largely totalled, but necessary for commercial reasons.

So why don't we use this as an experiment? Why don't we move people out of the city, and zone it as strictly commercial/industrial. Build new housing in the suburbs, and the most advanced commuter system in the history of the world.

Basically, put the people in safe areas, put the commmerce where it needs to be, and give people the means to get back and forth between the two.

After all, that's how I used to do really well in SimCity...

Posted by: RFTR at September 7, 2005 05:23 PM Permalink

"Will you be saying the same thing when Phoenix or Las Vegas run out of water, or when the New Madrid fault decimates the midwest?"

Actually, if the reasoning holds why should we wait until the natural disaster occurs. For example, we are told that at some point LA and San Fran (and other major cities on the west coast) *will* suffer a major natural disaster. If we think it is smart to relocate cities after natural disasters wouldn't it be more cost effective to do it before they hit.

I acknowledge that there is no modern reason why a city of the size of NO should be built where it is. At the same time, there are any number of (older) American cities about which that can be said.

As much sense as it makes to not rebuild, it will be rebuilt. Though I suspect that it will be less residential employing some of the techniques proposed by RFTR.

Posted by: Jim at September 7, 2005 05:41 PM Permalink

There is no reason why the rest of the country needs to financially support the salvaging of a city doomed to sink into the mud 12" per year even if not another drop of water spills over the levee.

Fine, save the port. Save the refineries and the pipelines. If needed, build a canal between the Gulf and the Mississippi wherever it finally winds up when left to itself. Restore the marshes to manage flood control - nature did fine before engineers and politicians arrived on the scene.

But don't rebuild supefluous structures that house so concentrated a collection of the poorest, least educated, most hopeless (in terms of their prospects) people of any city in the US. And, don't use my money to do it.

If New Orleans or Louisana want to use the tax dollars they reap from overtaxing the billions of assets of the shipping and petrochemical industies to rebuild, that's their [dumb] decision. But, they don't need my money to do it.

I'd rather see the federal government spend on new refinery development to ease the shortages or fuel delivery systems to lower the cost of getting fuel throughout the country or alternate fuel science that benefits the whole country rather than spend on a hole in the country.

Posted by: JohnG at September 7, 2005 05:44 PM Permalink

As Mark Twain once said, "Ain't no one but Uncle Sam as could afford such a river." Actually, the Mississippi has shown much more than just signs of changing its course in the past, and if it weren't for the concentrated efforts of the Corps of Engineers, it would have done so a long time ago--into the Atchafalaya Basin. Now we're riding the tiger--because, as several commenters above have noted, southern Louisiana is the largest port in the country in terms of tonnage handled, and the lower Mississippi is one of the largest industrial districts in the country--because of the river. Anyone wanting a real eye-opener about this river should read the first chapter in John McPhee's The Control of Nature. Mississippi chanel control probably won't be sustainable in the mid- to long-term, and it may even be doomed for the short term. If the control efforts up-river of Baton Rouge fail, any decision about New Orleans will have been in a very real way taken out of our hands--New Orleans won't be worth messing with any more.

Incidentally, the article in the NPR link states that the Cajuns came to Louisiana to have religious freedom. That's vague and only partly true--they were actually expelled from Nova Scotia by the British.

Posted by: betsybounds at September 7, 2005 06:00 PM Permalink

JohnG, please do a little math. The city at most averages sinking about 0.08 inches per year or so, or it would be way further below sea level.

Get a grip.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, & pfpp

Posted by: Tom Perkins at September 7, 2005 06:01 PM Permalink

RFTR, right on.
I agree. We should maintain the key port facilities, any transecting national infrastructure assets, and all military assets in the area. Residential areas should be on high-ground only.

Man seems to pick unnecessary fights with nature, then invests in cumbersome social machines to fortify his tenuous gains. When his fortresses fail, he'll question himself, the design of the fort, and even his Gods, but never, never the rationale for picking the fight in the first place.

What, except nostalgia, could make reasonable the reestablishment of 500,000 permanent residents in a bowl in a Hurricane alley? Sentimentality for "how it was" should not govern the city's new form. The long-term welfare of its residents should.

Posted by: Steve at September 7, 2005 06:07 PM Permalink

Wow, I never thought I would be a supporter of the Kelo decision until now!

Posted by: Johnson at September 7, 2005 06:09 PM Permalink

How about you people who wish to rebuild New Orleans agree to live in the lowest part of the city and be the last to evacuate? Hmmm... doesn't sound like such a good idea, does it?

If New Orleans is so critical to this country's economy, let's see how this country is doing in a month while the city is still shut down.

The fact is that most other possible disasters in the country can be mitigated through private efforts that don't have unintended consequences. You can make your house or building stronger against earthquakes, for example. In New Orleans, you rely on a public good that will either fail (as it did during Katrina) or does too well (as it may do in a category 5 hurricane that fills New Orleans with water 10' above sea level). Furthermore, these efforts create an even higher likelihood of disaster since land is disappearing and New Orleans is sinking. The risk of an earthquake is more or less constant (it might actually lessen after the Big One).

Posted by: Ammonium at September 7, 2005 06:13 PM Permalink


Upon what philosophic and economic premises do you come to this conclusion?

"I think that the government should buy up New Orleans (at pre-Katrina prices), at least the below-sea-level parts, excepting maybe the French Quarter..."

You make an assertion and then provide a quote about how the city was engineered. And then you say that millions of taxpayers have to buy land from the people of New Orleans. What is the link?

The people of New Orleans choose to live there. Yes, even the poor. Just because you are poor does not mean you can not move. Millions of poor Americans over the past two centuries have moved in search of better circumstances.

It is up to the individuals of New Orleans to decide what to do with their own land -- sell it to others or rebuild. You and I have no obligation to buy it from them while evading that Katrina occured.



Posted by: The Charlotte Capitalist at September 7, 2005 06:30 PM Permalink

On the Levees of New Orleans

Posted by: Solomon2 at September 7, 2005 06:41 PM Permalink

I would rather see someone like Gehry hired to redesign the City (say, after a contest to pick the best designer) than have an unchanged city plan.

The amount invested in interstates, port facilities, tourist attractions, railroads around and through NO, plus 300 miles of levees that may only need $2.5 billion to get to Cat 5 protection suggests a need to avoid throwing out baby with bathwater.

Last Cat 4-5 storm to hit the area hard, as I recall, was Betsy in 1965. Assuming such storms will come in every 40 years or so, I like the idea of rebuilding residences and stores at least 20 feet above sea level. I am not sure there is enough of that sort of land within 40 miles of NO to support 400,000 residents.

Posted by: cfw at September 7, 2005 06:43 PM Permalink

This would be the appropriate occasion for the use of the eminent domain power: the Federal Government should condemn those parts of the city that sit below sea level and return them to the wetlands they once were. The port facilities should be retained, however, because they are necessary for the nation's economy.

Why is this justified? Because we know now, as surely as we know that the earth orbits around the sun, that another monster hurricane will hit NO again and no amount of levee building will protect the city against another disaster. I can't think of a better use of the eminent domain power than this case. Restoring wetlands or creating a park is obviously a legitimate public use.

What is just compensation in this case? I don't know, but even if you paid the full pre-Katrina price, that will be a lot less than paying to rebuild everything. In any event, I don't think it should be the pre-Katrina price. It should be the fair market value of whatever's there - if it's a wreck, it should be the pre-Katrina fair market value of the land, minus the cost of removing the wreck. Etc. Condemning the land doesn't mean that the Government should become the insurer of all hurricane-related losses; those without flood/wind insurance should bear those losses on their own.

Posted by: DBL at September 7, 2005 06:50 PM Permalink

Since it's so nationally important (and it is), maybe it should be nationalizied. Yeah there's a plan. The French quarter could be a national park of sorts and the ports run by the Navy. No local govermental units to screw up disasters, unified command, enterance fees to supplement federal funding. Not a great solution but better than the current situation.

Posted by: Jon Burrows at September 7, 2005 07:08 PM Permalink

Don't build below sea level because sooner or later the water will come? Tell that to the Netherlands, which is mostly below sea level and yet managed to build a modern and comprehensive defense against flooding a few decades ago. Maybe we can worry about the latter so we don't need to throw out red-herrings like the former.

Some of N.O. probably won't come back. But most of it should, underwater or no.

Posted by: BelowSeaLevel at September 7, 2005 09:54 PM Permalink

An excellent book on the Mississippi River levee system and the early history of The Corps of Engineers is "Rising Tide" by John Barry. It is one of the best books I've ever read. It reads like an historical novel but it's not a novel. As a hydrologist you'll love it.


Posted by: Lowell McCormick at September 7, 2005 10:30 PM Permalink

What about TERRORISM? How can you possibly protect 300 miles of levees???

Regardless of how they build it, or how high, how easy would it be to blow a hole in it???

If I were a terrorist ......


Posted by: Ken at September 8, 2005 01:48 AM Permalink

Hastert has the right idea. Just bury the debris and filth where it is. Don't haul it out to sea. Don't "buy the land" unless it is land in West VA that is covering the coal. Quickly cover the land to a depth of 40' above sea level. People can still own their piece of the land, Its just 40 or 50 feet higher. They can build on it or sell it to someone else that wants to live there. The wind and rain will still come but they can build to prepare for that. Large buildings still capable of being rehabilitated would simply have a basement 40'feet deep to use for parking.

Posted by: Jack Adams at September 8, 2005 05:13 AM Permalink

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