How Land Use Contributed to Risk and Disaster during Hurricane Katrina

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On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near the mouth of the Pearl River on the border between Louisiana and Mississippi. The hurricane resulted in one of the largest disasters in American history and led to the loss of approximately 1,800 lives and nearly $200 billion in damages along the Gulf Coast.[1] In particular, southeastern Louisiana experienced extensive flooding when large sections of the region’s hurricane protection systems failed during the storm. By September 1, eighty percent of New Orleans was under water, and thousands of residents were stranded on roof tops, highways, or at the Super Dome—for over a week in some instances.[2] Removing the flood waters from the city took forty-three days, and 1.4 million Louisianans were displaced from their homes in the aftermath of the hurricane.[3]

Multiple factors contributed to the storm’s widespread destruction, including poor disaster planning and shoddy levee construction.[4] Another issue that intensified Katrina’s impacts was the persistent loss of Louisiana’s coastal marshes and swamps. Since the 1930s, the state has lost over 1,800 square miles of land—an area that is about the same size as Delaware.[5] Wetlands buffer against wave action and storm surges, and almost eight decades of losses had increased the likelihood of significant flooding along the coast. Further, the declining number of swamps and marshes meant less land to slow down storms as they came onshore and that further undermined the efficacy of hurricane protection systems.[6]

Officials have been working to address Louisiana’s wetland losses since the early 1970s, but progress has been piecemeal. The causes of the state’s shrinking coastline are complicated, and finding solutions to the crisis has been difficult.[7] Essentially, coastal erosion is an environmental crisis that is rooted in economic, political, and social choices, and many of those choices have been tied to decisions about land-use practices. Planning for deliberate, orderly use of the land has been a matter of U.S. public policy since at least the early twentieth century, but land-use ordinances were generally handled by local governments. When Americans began demanding cleaner, healthier environments in the 1960s and 1970s, state and federal officials became more involved in land-use planning. However, industrial expansion and urban sprawl continued at a rapid pace, and green spaces were often just as likely to be paved over rather than preserved. Additionally, populations that settled in high-risk areas such as flood plains began turning to the government for help as property damages increased in frequency and cost.[8]

Such was the case in Louisiana. Flood control along the Mississippi was the responsibility of individual landowners and then local levee boards during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. After the devastating floods of 1927, the state and the federal government made considerable investments in taming the Mississippi River with levees and other flood-control measures. Hurricane protection followed a similar pattern; primarily individuals and local governments oversaw the construction of sea walls or hurricane levees until the mid-twentieth century. Major hurricanes in 1947 and 1965 prompted the U.S. Congress to support the creation of extensive hurricane levee systems in southeastern Louisiana to safeguard lives and property. The riverine and hurricane levees did reduce flooding in specific circumstances, but the structures had several negative long-term effects.

First, levees kill wetlands by removing vegetation, displacing soils, and disrupting local hydrology patterns. Worse, the levees used to contain “Big Muddy” deprived the Mississippi Delta of the sediments and fresh water needed to build and maintain the coastal wetlands. Second, people tended to assume that levees would keep them safe, and the protection systems inadvertently encouraged more settlement in high-risk areas. In fact, local governments frequently asked the Army Corps of Engineers to expand the hurricane protection systems when the agency was designing plans in the 1960s and 1970s. Parish officials argued that suburban expansion would eventually encroach on undeveloped lands and proactive protection efforts would be economically beneficial in the long run. The Corps often acquiesced to local requests, and developers subsequently drained low-lying marshes and swamps to accommodate urban growth. An ever-increasing number of Louisianans found themselves living on lands that were sinking and only partially protected by a deteriorating coastline and faulty levee systems.[9] When Hurricane Katrina hit, Americans bore collective witness to the stark and dramatic consequences of those land-use patterns.

After the storm, state and federal representatives moved quickly to correct a number of deficiencies in disaster preparedness and response, but a more fundamental problem existed. Louisiana’s coastal wetlands were its best defense against storm surge and hurricane-related flooding, and restoration efforts had been foundering for years. In November 2005, legislators passed a law that established the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and directed the new agency to develop a master plan to oversee restoration and hurricane protection efforts. Officials in the CPRA spent a year drafting a planning document and sometimes faced intense public criticism for failing to listen to experts or for emphasizing building levees instead of building wetlands. The Authority released its first master plan in 2007 to mixed receptions, but the five-year update garnered much stronger support in 2012. While the CPRA emphasized the importance of saving Louisiana’s wetlands in both versions of the master plan, efforts to redirect land use were often incidental rather than deliberate.[10]

Some discussion about reimagining land-use practices in the state did happen after the 2005 hurricane season. For example, a fierce debate about the future of New Orleans took place in the early months of 2006. Planners, politicians, and the public advocated several different positions, ranging from complete abandonment of the city to maintaining the urban “footprint” exactly as it was on August 28, 2005.[11] By the tenth anniversary of the storm, the state and municipal governments—including New Orleans—had largely embraced a policy of “mitigation.” With the adoption of this approach, officials promoted policies such as home elevation, better drainage mechanisms, reducing new development in flood zones, and restoring the coastal wetlands.[12] The levee systems were also expanded and modestly fortified, but officials and the public mostly rejected radical changes to existing land-use patterns.[13]

Yet Louisianans may find themselves in another debate about land use sooner rather than later, and “abandonment” may eventually become a necessity in certain cases. Indeed, the small group of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians on Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish are already having such discussions. Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Development awarded a $48 million grant to Louisiana’s Office of Community Development to help relocate people living on the rapidly disappearing island. Some of the residents have agreed to move to higher ground, but others cannot imagine abandoning the homes that their families have lived in for generations.[14]

The story of Isle de Jean Charles is set to play out over and over in other parts of the state in the coming years. While restoration efforts have led to some notable successes since Hurricane Katrina, anti-erosion and land-building projects are frequently underfunded or implemented in a slow, piecemeal fashion. More forebodingly, the CPRA released its second update to the coastal master plan in January 2017, and the document explicitly outlines the grave risks that the state will face due to climate change. New Orleans and other coastal communities are expected to become even more vulnerable to flooding and storm surge as the planet heats up and sea levels rise.[15] If the state takes no additional actions to restore the coast, authors of the 2017 master plan estimate Louisiana will lose another 2,250 square miles of land by 2067. In that scenario, radical alterations of land use will be unavoidable. State officials and the public currently have the opportunity to fundamentally rethink how land is used in southern Louisiana and to begin the hard conversations about which parts of the coast to save. Waiting until the waters are rising and no longer receding will undoubtedly result in more heartache and suffering than doing so while there is still time—and land—left to act.

Rebecca B. Costa earned her Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in 2016. She specializes in environmental history and is currently working on a manuscript that examines the development of Louisiana’s coastal conservation and restoration policies over the last forty years.

[1] Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP), Katrina/Rita: Building a Smarter + Safer + Stronger + More Resilient Louisiana (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, 2015), 5, http://gohsep.la.gov/Portals/0/Documents/FULLK-R10yearannivesarybullets-V32-8-4-15-5p.pdf.

[2] Hurricane Katrina External Review Panel, The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System: What Went Wrong and Why (Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2007), 25-31, http://ascelibrary.org/doi/pdf/10.1061/9780784408933; Frontline, “The Storm: 14 Days: A Timeline,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/storm/etc/cron.html.

[3] Richard Knabb, Jamie Rhome, and Daniel Brown, Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Katrina, August 23-30, 2005 (Miami, FL: National Hurricane Center, 2005; Updated in 2006 and 2011), 9, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/AL122005_Katrina.pdf; GOHSEP, Katrina/Rita, 1.

[4] Comm. on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. S. Rep. 109-322. Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Governing Printing Office, 2006. https://www.congress.gov/109/crpt/srpt322/CRPT-109srpt322.pdf); Hurricane Katrina External Review Panel. The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System: What Went Wrong and Why. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2007. http://ascelibrary.org/doi/pdf/10.1061/9780784408933.

[5] Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast (Baton Rouge, LA: Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, 2017), ES-2, http://coastal.la.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/2017-MP-Book_2-page-spread_Combined_01.05.2017.pdf.

[6] Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority, 2012), 16, http://coastal.la.gov/resources/library/reports/.

[7] Louisiana Advisory Commission on Coastal and Marine Resources, Louisiana Government and the Coastal Zone (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Advisory Commission on Coastal and Marine Resources, 1972), Louisiana Advisory Commission on Coastal and Marine Resources, Wetlands ’73: Toward Coastal Zone Management in Louisiana (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Advisory Commission on Coastal and Marine Resources, 1973), and Louisiana Advisory Commission on Coastal and Marine Resources, Louisiana Wetlands Prospectus.

[8] See: Adam Rome’s The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001) for a discussion on the development of land-use planning in the United States during the twentieth century. Also see: Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer, Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disasters, (New York City: New York University Press, 2014) for an examination of how flood-control policies contributed to risky settlement patterns along the Mississippi River.

[9] See Craig Colten’s Perilous Place, Powerful Storms: Hurricane Protection in Coastal Louisiana (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2009) for a history on levee and hurricane construction in southeastern Louisiana.

[10] Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Integrated Ecosystem and Hurricane Protection: Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. Baton Rouge, LA: Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, 2007. http://coastal.la.gov/resources/library/reports/; Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority, 2012. http://coastal.la.gov/resources/library/reports/.

[11] Richard Campanella, “In post-Katrina New Orleans: Abandon? Maintain? Concede?” Times-Picayune, April 20, 2006, http://www.nola.com/katrina/index.ssf/2006/04/new_orleans_footprint_katrina.html.

[12] Richard Campanella, “The Great Katrina Footprint Debate 10 Years Later,” Times-Picayune, May 29, 2016, http://www.nola.com/katrina/index.ssf/2015/05/footprint_gentrification_katri.html.

[13] Mark Schleifstein, “New Orleans area’s upgraded levees not enough for next ‘Katrina,’ engineers say,” Times-Picayune, August 18, 2015, http://www.nola.com/futureofneworleans/2015/08/new_levees_inadequate_for_next.html.

[14] Ted Jackson, “Stay or Go? Isle de Jean Charles Families Wrestle with the Sea,” Times-Picayune, September 13, 2016, http://www.nola.com/weather/index.ssf/2016/09/stay_or_go_isle_de_jean_charles_families_wrestle_with_the_sea.html.

[15] Bob Marshall, “Unless Emissions Drop, Much of Coastal Louisiana Will be Swamped,” Times-Picayune, April 14, 2017, http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2017/04/emissions_louisiana_coast.html#incart_river_index_topics.

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