Lessons from Disaster: Post-Katrina Measures in New Orleans

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How taxpayer dollars are helping to prevent another disaster in New Orleans.

New Orleans was America's first major casualty of the climate-change era. When the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina, 80 percent of the land was submerged, 1,800 people died, and tens of thousands became homeless. In Washington, politicians and pundits argued against rebuilding the low-lying city. But ten years later, New Orleans offers vital lessons in how to prepare for the impact that climate change will inevitably bring in the years ahead.  “Since Katrina, we’ve built a levee system that delivers what’s called ‘robust, 100-year-level protection,’” says John Barry, the former vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East. “It’s better protection than New Orleans has ever had.” The secret? Dollars—14.5 billion of them, provided by U. S. taxpayers. “$14.5 billion will buy you lots of cement,” Barry says, grinning. The money was spent redesigning, rebuilding, and otherwise fortifying a ring of levees surrounding the city. Much more is needed. Even 100-year protection means that “in the average person’s lifespan, they will experience a stronger storm” than the current levees can contain, says Barry. The great imperative is to restore the wetlands south of New Orleans: Nothing weakens the force of a storm surge “like making it travel over land.” That requires more money, as well as a confrontation with the oil and gas industry, whose offshore activities are causing the wetlands to disappear at a frightful speed. Told that the American Planning Association named New Orleans’s resiliency strategy the nation’s best, Barry shakes his head. “If we’re number one, the rest of the country’s in serious trouble. But we might be [the best], because at least we have been thinking seriously about resiliency for the past ten years—and working on the problem.”