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.”

National Wildlife Federation and the NFIP

Environmental groups have strong objections to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) because it encourages development in fragile coastal environments. This testimony also mentions the proposed Multiple Peril Insurance Act which create a wind insurance program like the NFIP. Environmental groups oppose this because it would just make it even cheaper to live in high risk areas. Private insurers and re-insurers oppose it because it drive them out of a functioning insurance market.

Testimony of David R. Conrad Senior Water Resources Specialist National Wildlife Federation Regarding Legislative Proposals to Reform the National Flood Insurance Program Before the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity House Committee on Financial Services U.S. House of Representatives April 21, 2010.

Introduction to the National Flood Insurance Program

In the late 1960s, the federal government set up a national flood insurance program to deal with the failure of the private market for flood insurance. (Failure in the sense that no one wanted to actuarially sound rates for flood insurance.) It was a carrot and stick program to reduce development in areas at risk of flooding. The carrot was the availability of partially subsidized insurance and the stick was the requirement that communities that wanted to participate in the flood insurance program institute land use restrictions to limit future high risk construction. Through time, political pressures made it difficult for the program to enforce the land use restrictions and to charge realistic rates for coverage. Thus a program that was intended to reduce risky development eventually morphed into a program that subsidized risky development. This paper is a good introduction to the program and its legal issues, by an expert:

Ernest B. Abbott, Floods, Flood Insurance, Litigation, Politics – and Catastrophe:The National Flood Insurance Program, Sea Grant Law and Policy Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (June, 2008) 129-155.

A recent review of where the money goes:


Perhaps not surprisingly, Louisiana is the big winner in the flood insurance game. What is startling is the amount spent on rebuilding in the same high risk regions so that program makes makes multiple payouts on the same house.

Financial report for the first 2 years of the program:

United States. An Examination of Financial Statements of the National Flood Insurance Program, Fiscal Year 1970: Letter from Comptroller General of the United States Transmitting a Report on the Examination of Financial Statements of the National Flood Insurance Program, Federal Insurance Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, for Fiscal Year 1970, Pursuant to 31 USC 841. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1972.

CRS Report – Potential BP Liability for the Oil Spill

“Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began on April 20, 2010, Congress has given much attention to the compensatory liability provisions of the Oil Pollution Act and, to a lesser extent, those of the Jones Act and the Death on the High Seas Act. However, federal laws possibly relevant to the oil spill also impose civil and criminal money penalties, which may reach dollar amounts in connection with the Gulf spill greater than those for compensatory liability. This report summarizes selected federal civil and criminal penalty provisions that may be found violated in connection with the Gulf spill and related worker fatalities. It does not purport to be exhaustive. CRS stresses that it has no knowledge of the facts surrounding the Gulf spill other than what has been publicly reported; hence the provisions listed here are only an informed guess as to those that ultimately may be found violated.”

Robert Meltz, Federal Civil and Criminal Penalties Possibly Applicable to Parties Responsible for the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, CRS Report – August 16, 2010

Hurricane Katrina – Was Flooding Really a Surprise?

(Hurricane Katrina resources)

One of the post-Katrina myths is that no one expected the city to flood. It is true that no politician ever used the f-word when calling for evacuations. This was the single deadliest mistakes in the response to Katrina – New Orleans has never suffered widespread deadly wind damage, so the only scary reason to leave is the threat of flooding. In 2002, the TIMES-PICAYUNE ran a very bold and brave series of articles about risk of hurricane flooding in New Orleans:

Washing Away – This story made it clear that New Orleans was at high risk of flooding, that the levees were in terrible shape, and that even a moderate hurricane could inundate the city.

GOING UNDER (Graphic) – Hurricane Betsy flooded New Orleans with attic-high water in 1965, accelerating a massive public works effort to protect the
area from storm surge and flooding. But advances in computer modeling show that dangerous weak spots in the levees could result in a catastrophic flood. Erosion and subsidence make south Louisiana all the more vulnerable to hurricanes.

LAST LINE OF DEFENSE: HOPING THE LEVEES HOLD (Graphic) – Army Corps of Engineers officials say hurricane levees in the New Orleans area will protect residents from a Category 3 hurricane moving rapidly over the area. But computer models indicate even weaker storms could find chinks in that armor.

Roger D Congleton, The story of Katrina: New Orleans and the political economy of catastrophe, 127 Public Choice 5–30 (2006).

Great analysis of the politics leading to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Images of Katrina

The fifth anniversary of Katina is approaching, so this blog will devote some days to Katrina related posts. I sat out Katrina in Baton Rouge, where we got some damage, but where Rita was the more dangerous storm. LSU was a major staging area for the relief for the storm so there were months of storm related activity here. The LSU Law Center took in about 180 students from Loyola and Tulane – my adlaw class went from 40 t0 80. Many stayed with us for the year, many went on to other schools and school-in-exile programs.

Oliver Houck: Can We Save New Orleans? The Paper

Oliver Houck, Can We Save New Orleans? 19 TUL. ENVTL. L.J. 1-68 (2006)

This is Professor Houck’s cri de coeur, written shortly after Katrina. It is worth reading to catch a sense of the times, and rereading if you have not read it since it came out. There is much I agree with in this paper, and where we disagree, it is partially because circumstances have changed since it was written – for example, it was written when there was hope that New Orleans would use this as opportunity to rethink its footprint, and when there was hope that FEMA would enforce realistic flood maps and prevent the redevelopment of high risk areas.