What is the Corp Really Building in New Orleans?

From the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Observer:

Corps of Engineers’ Steven Stockton
Avoiding the Single Line of Defense
Natural Hazards Observer • September 2010

“Where are the visionaries for the future? [Congress’] focus is on a million different areas. It’s not on water infrastructure or on disaster risk mitigation,” says Steven Stockton, director of Civil Works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In a frank and wide-ranging discussion at the 35th Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop, Stockton described the many issues the Corps faces, including the overly optimistic expectations the public has for protection by engineered structures like dams and levees. “Building strong is kind of our tagline,” Stockton says. “It’s not just about structural solutions, it’s about building strong collaborative relationships with sustainable resource futures … there is no absolute when it comes to levels of protection. There’s a lot of controversy in New Orleans, where we’re putting in $15 billion there over a three year period developing a very strong and robust and resilient system.” The system includes the world’s largest surge barrier and the world’s largest pumping plant.

“But that provides about a 100-year level of protection, which is relatively low,” Stockton says. “The public either doesn’t want to or cannot grasp exactly what their portion of the risk is.”

Nonetheless, said Waterloo University’s Elizabeth English in a comment to Stockton, there is still in New Orleans a reliance on “single line of defense” technological solutions that promote catastrophic consequences, and an institutional resistance to nonstructural ideas. “It seems to be a question of politics, as much as anything else,” she said. In response, Stockton said, “I would love to see good land use planning, but a lot of that has to happen at the local level. We try to inform the political decision making process. We do a good job of evaluating the environmental, the technical, and economic aspects of those investment recommendations. But at the end of the day, we get political direction and authorization and funding from our masters in Congress and the administration.”

He added, however, “We’re providing a relatively low level of protection, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done at the local level, within the community to understand the risks.”

Asked why the Corps isn’t promoting nonstructural solutions harder, Stockton said, “Everything we do requires and act of Congress … We’ve been given a mission to provide a hundred-year level of protection, which is relatively low, by June, 2011. We’re going to do that. That’s what we get paid to do … Now there’s a lot of things that can be done beyond that—say if we can get support for wetlands restoration. But it takes resources, it takes money.” And that money has to come from Congress which, as he said, is not paying much attention to disaster risk mitigation.

—Dan Whipple

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