Perhaps the only surprise sprung by Hurricane Katrina on flood control and emergency planning officials was its tremendously wide path of destruction, stretching from New Orleans eastward to Mobile, Ala., and even into the Florida Panhandle. But the storm’s destruction–particularly in New Orleans and Louisiana–had been predicted many times over, especially within the past few years.

Experts warned that New Orleans’ flood defenses, designed in the 1960s but funded to handle only a Category 3 hurricane, would be seriously breached in a stronger event. The strongest call came in 2000, when Louisiana, with the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies, published Coast 2050, a $14-billion plan that would restore Louisiana’s first line of storm defense, its millions of acres of coastal wetlands. Its cost gave federal lawmakers pause, and sparked debate over whether protection was a federal responsibility, or Louisiana’s. Initial damage estimates already are surpassing its $14-billion estimate, giving flood-control advocates hope that Katrina can work as a catalyst to rethink policy and funding. Click here to view map

The Corps this year was successful in pushing an initial $1.9-billion program. Congress only appropriated $8.5 million and the rest awaits action as part of the Water Resources Development Act, now waiting for action by the Senate.

To look forward and begin thinking of how the region can be better protected from serious storms like Katrina, ENR brought together five engineers and scientists with experience in planning and building flood control projects in the region. They are: Robert Flowers, HNTB Federal Services Corp. CEO and former chief engineer of the Corps of Engineers; Greg Stone, professor of geology at Louisiana State University’s Coastal Studies Institute; Dominic Izzo, vice president of DMJM + Harris and former Army deputy assistant secretary for civil works; Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University; and Fred Caver, former deputy chief of civil works for the Corps of Engineers and now president of his own water resources consulting firm.

They agree that the region was inadequately defended and see Katrina as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change policy and adequately fund a comprehensive regional flood control system. Such a program is critical to protecting the infrastructure and economy of the Gulf Coast. The port of New Orleans handles the most tonnage of any in the U.S. and, with Baton Rouge and Galveston, Texas, processes more petrochemical products than any other. The port of Mobile, Ala., is becoming more important in handling trade within the Americas. The group’s comments show, however, that the elements that would comprise such a system remain open to debate. The entire conversation can be heard on

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  • Multimedia:
  • SlideShow:
    Hurricane Katrina Aftermath

    A Long Road to Storm Relief
    click here to view

  • Podcast:
    Flood Protection: Looking Ahead
    click here
  • What are some of the initial lessons learned from Katrina?

    Pilkey: I visited the area [in Mississippi] after Hurricane Camille and saw the same kind of destruction that you’re seeing now, the complete destruction of beachfront past two or three rows or blocks of houses. I think the time has come to consider something besides engineering alternatives. Perhaps the time has come for a societal debate to look at something other than where we were or engineering alternatives to hold shorelines in place.

    Flowers: You have to consider the economic importance of New Orleans, the New Orleans-Baton Rouge corridor and the Gulf Coast. New Orleans is the number one port in the U.S. in terms of tonnage throughput. It is the number one place where petrochemicals come into the country. It’s economically important that we reestablish those things.

    You have to go back to the great flood of 1927 to find something on the order of this magnitude. [That resulted in] Mississippi River legislation [that led to construction of the lower river’s system of levees.] You’re liable to see something like that come out of this relative to the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. But the most important first step is to create a national debate for much longer term solutions and get it funded. We may not have that luxury.

    Izzo: Besides reestablishing the function of the area….There are some towns that are just too exposed. Along the entire Mississippi beachfront, for the first two to three blocks back, maybe we should consider abandoning that area and returning to nature. Any plan has to have an overall look at the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Valley. This has to be done in an integrated way.

    Caver: There’s been a growing awareness for some time that erosion of the coastal zone of Louisiana is going to create significant problems in providing less protection for the city of New Orleans. I think it is a well-established fact. We have to as a nation get serious in that regard because of the major economic impact if we don’t. We have to look at larger problems in a comprehensive fashion. [Compared to New Orleans] there’s a different kind of problem along the coast. There are some opportunities for making substantial changes in a [political] climate after an event like this. I’m looking back now and wondering whether or not the cost savings [for building a less robust flood protection system in New Orleans and Louisiana] was worth it.

    Izzo: The program has been underfunded for at least 10 years. There’s a reason that the backlog for Army civil works is in tens of billions of dollars. If you go back and look at the budgets, the priorities have been environmental restoration and navigation. We have not spent money on shore protection. I don’t think this applies just to the Gulf Coast. Maybe we can use this catastrophe to at least get a sense of urgency for coastal protection and management.

    What types of solutions may be considered when thoughts turn to reconstruction? More structural options, wetland restoration for storm barriers, or something else?

    Flowers: There’s a potential for some or all of the above. But it should be based on engineering and science and not rough policy.

    Izzo: I don’t think any solution for New Orleans can be separated from the coast and you can’t separate that from whatever you’re going to do for the river. We need a collaborative planning effort.

    Caver: There are different kinds of problems in different areas of the coast. [In the past] we have attempted to design very discreet risk-based solutions and even those haven’t been funded at an adequate rate. It’s been a short-sighted investment strategy. Today, we’re pretty much consuming capital assets and infrastructure that were left to us and we’re leaving a problem for our children.

    Stone: We are losing our barrier islands at an increasingly rapid rate. Land is an effective buffer even if it is lowlying. We have scientific data that shows unequivocally that as we lose barrier islands and wetlands, we increase inundation and storm surge. This is not a local problem. We’re not exactly in the dark about what we need to bolster the coast.

    Is there contention within the engineering and political community on how to go about planning?

    Stone: The Corps, engineers and scientists are faced with a complex coastal environment here. Some trends I’ve witnessed are that engineering companies have been hired to come here [and] they apply off-the-shelf models for design criteria that are based on the physics of sandy beaches. This issue is entirely different. We’re dealing with fine-grained silts and mud. The physics are so different. When we’re thinking of what tools we need, we need to think outside the box and we’re really not doing a good job of that.

    One thing we should all be vigilant of is that this is a totally different ball game now. We’ve been told we’re entering a decadal, maybe multidecadal period of time where we’ll experience an increase in number of Katrina-type storms. We’ve already experienced that in the Gulf. Future restoration efforts have got to take this into account. It is a paradigm shift.

    Is there a way to provide a dedicated funding source for coastal protection?

    Izzo: There should be some kind of programmatic authorization for the region. We can expand on what we just did in the energy bill [where some royalties from offshore energy exploration go directly back to states.]