Skip to comments.Big Questions About the Big Easy (GA Tech Civil Eng Prof interview)
Posted on 05/21/2006 10:31:12 AM PDT by FreedomPoster
Big Questions About the Big Easy
Joseph Hughes chairs the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech and serves on the EPA's environmental engineering advisory committee. He toured the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast with President Wayne Clough in November, spoke to former Alumni Association trustees in January and recently sat down with the ALUMNI MAGAZINE. Hughes now is helping coordinate a conference that will address the future of New Orleans.
What is Georgia Tech's role in the rebuilding of New Orleans?
We're at the stage right now in the discussion where there are real questions whether we should rebuild or what we should rebuild. Clearly the city will be forever changed. We were brought in initially President Clough, myself and others to engage in a discussion from the civil engineering perspective. What we realized is this is a problem that goes far beyond infrastructure.
How will you proceed?
A proposal has been funded from the United Engineering Foundation for Georgia Tech and our partner universities Tulane, the University of New Orleans and LSU and in partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers to have a forum on the subject of rebuilding New Orleans. Tech led the proposal submission, and we received almost $60,000 from the foundation. Our goal is to look forward and not to look to the past and really explore what it would mean to protect New Orleans and the region.
Will the forum address issues outside engineering?
The human component of this is extremely important. We could build anything hypothetically, but what we really want to do is build things for the people who will benefit from them. What is it that's going to get people, particularly businesses, to re-establish operations?
Wasn't the risk of living in the city of New Orleans widely understood?
In California they have this saying about "the big one." But in recognition of that, the way they build things in California is strongly influenced. New Orleans is different. There was the recognition that the city is below sea level in a hurricane-prone region. How much faith do you put in those levees? Fundamentally the people who were living there put all their possessions in the security of the levees.
The failed levees went through a design process to protect the city from a fast-moving category 3. It never was intended to protect against anything more.
Why weren't the levees improved in 40 years?
There's a lot of finger pointing going on. We can try to find someone to blame until we're old and gray. What is important for us is to say, "OK, that's in the rearview mirror. What do we do in the future?"
Everybody knew this would happen someday. In 2004, there was an exercise by FEMA to try to consider what would happen if a big storm hit New Orleans. They dreamed up a mythical hurricane called Pam. Pam was a slow-moving category 3-ish hurricane that was supposed to rumble over the city of New Orleans. It was all done by computer simulation.
During this exercise the outcomes were truly staggering. There were estimates of as many as 100,000 deaths in New Orleans from a category 3 hurricane direct hit. To be honest, at least in loss of human life, we got off lucky with Katrina.
Of course Katrina's true legacy is the flooding of New Orleans. The damage is absolutely staggering. There's nothing that is on television or that I can show you that comes close to expressing the extent of damage that took place
Why did the levees fail?
There were three major levee failures in the city. They all failed before overtopping. In one case the levee was literally just pushed away. It appears as though it wasn't built correctly. In another case the levee actually sank. The water had gone underneath it and pushed the foundation out and it just went down. There had been a lot of construction very close to the levees from residential and commercial development. A number were heavily planted with trees, things that can affect the structural integrity of the levee.
What about the problems of debris?
When we flew over New Orleans I saw between 40,000 and 50,000 refrigerators that had been moved out of homes and were just sitting side by side. That's just one example of the unbelievable solid waste problem. There has never been a bigger solid waste problem in the United States.
Over 108,000 houses took on more than four feet of water, all within New Orleans. That's greater than 50 percent of the houses in New Orleans. That doesn't include the businesses, the restaurants, the doctor's offices.
And the public health issues?
I think they are going to grow. The city is rotting. It's a city that's prone to decay. It's very warm, it's very moist and requires a lot of upkeep. There are a tremendous amount of abandoned buildings, structures that are literally decomposing.
I think it will be worse once we start to get into the warmer parts of the year. There's a tremendous amount of waste within the city that has the potential to cause all sorts of human health problems.
How is work progressing on the rebuilding of the levees?
The goal is that by the beginning of hurricane season June 1 the existing levee system will be at pre-Katrina levels no improvements, just to get back to where they were.
The Army Corps of Engineers is very involved in the reconstruction of the levees that were damaged or destroyed. Some of them will be repairable in that time period, some may not. Some of them were not actually owned by the Army Corps.
I don't think we'll see the full levee system at the pre-Katrina level before the beginning of the hurricane season, but the levees that failed within the city of New Orleans proper, the ones that caused the most flood damage that affected the citizens of New Orleans, those do fall under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers and those are the ones that the focus is on.
How many people have returned to New Orleans?
There are roughly 140,000 people in the city. The population was over 600,000 before Katrina. The projections are that it will approach 250,000 by September 2008 less than half the people by 2008. It's a city that's going to be much smaller than it used to be.
Will the conference focus on the entire Gulf Coast region?
Anything that we do will have to be larger in scope, at least from a systems perspective. Biloxi was just really destroyed, but Biloxi is a different issue. Biloxi was hit like a normal hurricane would hit. It wasn't an infrastructural failure. It was an example of what a strong storm surge can do. It gives people in that area an understanding of what can happen again.
This was an amazing storm with amazing consequences on the economy of the United States. It has displaced 1.2 million people, which is second only to the Dust Bowl. The damage is very difficult to assess in terms of economic effect.
Has New Orleans as we knew it disappeared?
It's never going to be the same. Historically we've seen that. When Galveston was destroyed (by a hurricane in September 1900), Houston was born. Galveston has never come back.
Certainly a lot of New Orleans has moved to Houston. Baton Rouge doubled in population (after Katrina) and there's still no vacancy anywhere in Baton Rouge. The future of New Orleans may be Baton Rouge.
Should New Orleans be rebuilt?
At this stage I would say it's not a place where I would feel safe moving my family. There will be a city there. There are people who are willing to take that risk and there is an economic infrastructure like the port and like the French Quarter. Some reports say it may grow back to a quarter of a million people. It's a place where there's a level of risk that to me will cause many, many people to say, "I'm not going to put my investments there."
Can New Orleans look to Amsterdam as a model?
Amsterdam (a city that is also below sea level) underwent a very significant flood in 1953. A tremendous effort was initiated right away to try to protect Amsterdam in the future massive infrastructure construction projects. The first step was to construct a moveable storm surge barrier. That went into operation in 1958. The Delta Project was not completed per its original design until 1997.
How long could it take to rebuild New Orleans to that same level of safety?
We can build things that would protect New Orleans in the future. I will probably be long since retired before they're done. So we've got a period of 30-ish years, even if we're aggressive, that says it's not protected. That raises real questions about the future of the city.
Natural disasters tend to accelerate the rate of change. New Orleans is a city that was economically challenged before. The median household income in New Orleans before the storm was $27,000. The national average is $41,000.
People have not been moving to New Orleans. The population has been decreasing since 1965. No Fortune 500 company is headquartered in New Orleans.
Would you move your family there? Would you move your company there if I told you realistically it may be 20 to 30 years before New Orleans is protected? Yes, we can rebuild. But have you built it for anyone who wants to be there?
If you read nothing else, read the last three paragraphs of the interview.
Yet it continues there and on the barrier islands all along the coast. And they wonder why the destruction totals increase every year?
An excellent post. Some realistic talk about an unsolvable problem. This guy is actually addressing the problems that exist instead of being off in some dreamland.
Also the levees need to be breached below New Orleans to allow the Spring Floods to deposit their silt in the swamps
For that to happen, it would need to be carried all the way up the Mississippi River and it's trubutaries. And I don't think that will ever happen.
The professor totally ignored one crucial factor:
In a city that does not have the common sense to evacuate (as the Florida Keys are evacuated before every hurricane), a rebuilding would only make possible a future catastrophe of Biblical proportions.
Amazing what happens when you have engineers, instead of politicians, addressing problems.
The actual number was probably a lot higher. Even the areas that didn't flood were without power for weeks or more. All of the food in every refrigerator rotted horribly, with the resultant putrification ruining the insulation. In a city of 500K people, there were probably 150-200K refrigerators pre-Katrina. Almost all had to be trashed.
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