The Control of Nature – Morganza Spillway

John McPhee has written a fascinating history of the River Control Structure at Morganza. While it is not clear that the Mississippi still wants to go down the Atchafalaya, losing the River Control Structure in a flood would still be a catastrophe that could rival Katrina.

“Three hundred miles up the Mississippi River from its mouth—many parishes above New Orleans and well north of Baton Rouge—a navigation lock in the Mississippi’s right bank allows ships to drop out of the river. In evident defiance of nature, they descend as much as thirty-three feet, then go off to the west or south. This, to say the least, bespeaks a rare relationship between a river and adjacent terrain—any river, anywhere, let alone the third-ranking river on earth.”

Read more

Blowing the Mississippi Levee – 2011

Missouri’s TRO against the Corps to prevent the blowing of the levee on the Mississippi in May 2011: complaintanswer; and district court opinion (upheld by the circuit court – Missouri v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 11-01937, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (St. Louis)., and review was denined by the Supreme Court.)

This same issue was litigated when the Corps modified the levee system at this point, and Missouri tried to block the work based on failing to consider earthquakes under the EIS:

Story v. Marsh, 732 F.2d 1375 (8th Cir. 1984) – More levee law

Joint Statement From Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack And FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate On The Opening Of The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway In Central Missouri

Interesting that almost none of the media pays attention to the legal situation of folks in the Missouri floodway – they originally got the land with easements on it, or sold an easement to the feds later. The original purchasers got the land very cheaply, precisely because of the easements. With time, everyone forgets that every day they are on land is a gift, not an entitlement. Then when the floodway is used, congress comes in and bails them out as if they owned the land free and clear.

The worse problem is playing out over the decision to open the Morganza spillway in Louisiana. This has not been opened since 1973, and it is full of people who forgot that is a spillway. This then inhibits the corps in opening the spillway, which then increases the belief that it will never be opened. The Corps should be opening Morganza right now, rather than seeing how much stress the downstream levees can take. For example, the major prison in LA, Angola, is on a bend in the river. The projected crest is now higher than the levee at Angola, and the state is starting the process of evacuating a max security prison with more than 5,000 prisoners. That would not be necessary if Morganza was open. Baton Rouge is facing a crest 4 feet about the previous record, which may put some water over the levee on the Port Allen (west side) of the river, since those levees are a little lower. While 47.5 feet is below the level of the levees, it is enough to drive a lot of water under the levee. You can already see the water level in the drainage ditches near the levee going up, and sand boils are carrying water several thousand feet from the river into neighborhoods. If things are not as the Corps thinks they are with the levees, and a boil blows out like in Cairo, you could get a lot of flooding fast. The conventional wisdom in LA is that Mississippi river levees do not break, but that is only true until it isn’t. (They are built and maintained better than hurricane levees, but the Corps knows a lot less about the geology in south LA than it thinks.)

So, should we let people live and farm in spillways at all? My vote would be to make them wilderness, and to open them pretty regularly to keep the charged with silt and filled with wetlands.

This post will be updated as more information is available.

ASCE – The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System: What Went Wrong and Why

“On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck southeast Louisiana and triggered what would become one of the worst disasters ever to befall an American city. The devastation was so extensive, and the residual risk looms so ominous, that, more than a year later, the future of New Orleans remains clouded. The members of the ASCE Hurricane Katrina External Review Panel have conducted an in-depth review of the comprehensive work of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Interagency Performance Evaluation Taskforce (IPET) to better understand this tragedy and prevent similar disasters from happening again. The report, The New Orleans Hurricane Protection Systems: What Went Wrong and Why, focuses on the direct physical causes and contributing factors to the hurricane protection system failures. It was developed not to repeat the IPET information, but to interpret the broader significance of the findings. Written for both technical and general audiences, the report gleans valuable information related to the science and technology of hurricane flood protection as well as an overview of what caused the disaster. A fascinating read, “The New Orleans Hurricane Protection Systems: What Went Wrong and Why” offers hope for not just the future of New Orleans, but for all other hurricane and flood-prone areas of the country.”

ASCE, The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System: What Went Wrong and Why (A Report by ASCE Hurricane Katrina External Review Panel) Reston, VA: ASCE (2007) – Original link

Against the Deluge: Storm Surge Barriers to Protect New York City

Original link

Monday, March 30th, 2009 – Part I. THE THREAT OF COASTAL FLOODING

First Half – Session Chair: Michael Lorczak, P.E., AECOM, New York, NY (ASCE Met Section President)

Second Half – Session Chair: Mike Bobker, Co-Chair, Environmental Sciences Steering Committee, NYAS


First Half – Session Chair: Dr. Rae Zimmerman, Professor, NYU-Wagner Graduate School, New York, NY

Second Half – Session Chair: Dr. Douglas Hill, P.E., Consulting Engineer, Huntington, NY


The Worst Case in Disaster Planning

Good points in the editorial. I also think that we should look at the worst cases. However, politicians, and the disaster planners who work for them, usually do not want to admit that their plans do not cover the worst cases because that would require very unpopular actions. Two examples come to mind.

In smallpox policy, we do not want to talk about mandatory immunizations or even universal immunizations because the vaccine is risky. But the worst case models show smallpox introduced at multiple points (as would be likely in a bioterrorist act) infecting and killing millions before it is controlled with incremental immunization strategies. (For more info on smallpox.)

On the Louisiana coast, the worst case is New Orleans utterly flattened by Cat 5 winds (most housing destroyed and most trees down, likely on the housing) and then completely flooded. That reality would require serious reconsideration of current rebuilding and levee projects, and would further undermine the real estate market. That makes it politically impossible to consider. Before Katrina, it had become politically impossible to admit New Orleans could flood, which was the primary reason for the late evacuation call and the opening of shelters in the city. A few more years without a bad storm and the politicians will again convince themselves that the city has been protected by the levees.

Mississippi Flood History

The Mississippi Delta has always been defined by the sediment flow of the river and level of the ocean. Of these two, sediment flow is less important than ocean level – ocean level has varied more than 200 feet over geologic time. With the ocean level rising, the sediment level does affect how fast the delta is inundated. With a full sediment load and no levees, ocean rise would not submerge the delta as quickly. (It is important to remember that the delta was already receding before man started building levees and dams.) But the Mississippi has been leveed along most of its length, limiting both the sediment going into the river and the ability of the river to deposit this sediment over the delta during floods. Dams have also been built on the upper river and on some feeder streams, further trapping sediment. Without these levees, however, much of the delta and the banks of the upper river would be flooded regularly. This would make it impossible for large cities like New Orleans and St. Louis to exist in their current form. This table gives a good view of the periodic floods of the Mississippi:


Fewer but Bigger Hurricanes?

Some models of the effect of climate change on hurricanes predict fewer storms but stronger storms. While all storms are a threat to the Louisiana coast, it is the large storms that threaten the very existence of cities such as New Orleans. Dr. Jeff Masters’ WunderBlog has excellent discussion of these models and whether the 2010 season is consistent with this theory:


Coast Guard Report on Response to BP Spill


For the nation, the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout and release was unprecedented in scope,scale, and duration. While the response system established by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990(OPA 90) has effectively dealt with approximately 1,500 oil spill incidents per year since itsenactment, this incident exposed deficiencies in planning and preparedness for an uncontrolledrelease of oil from an offshore drilling operation. The incident also highlighted the differencesbetween the system of response for oil spills and that provided for other emergencies such asnatural disasters and terrorist incidents.

Over the past decade, both public and private sector investment in planning and preparedness forand response to oil spills has decreased. If the public and Congress expect significantimprovements in this Nation’s ability to respond to catastrophic oil spills, additional funding willbe needed for improvements, which include research and development and increasedgovernmental oversight of private sector preparedness and response capability. To be effective,such oversight should begin at the outset of the offshore drilling permit process. This reporturges that planning and preparedness programs be reviewed, and that adequate funding beprovided to enhance oil spill preparedness and response programs so they can effectively addressan offshore Spill of National Significance.


The Japanese Tsunami and what it means to the US

Several areas of the United States are subject to tsunamis, and the coast north of San Francisco through the Canadian border has a history of catastrophic tsunamis. This report from FEMA details the tsunami risk in the United States:

Those who saw the damage from the Hurricane Katrina storm surge have noted that it looks very much like the tsunami damage. While a hurricane surge does not have the initial force of a fast moving tsunami, the wave action during the long period of inundation leads to very similar damage. It is likely that the New Orleans levees will be no more effective than the tsunami walls when the next great storm comes to the Louisiana Coast.  As the Japanese learned, it is failing to work with realistic estimates of wave heights, not construction, that ultimately determines the usefulness of flood walls.

Small storms, big floods – Tropical Storm Allison

Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav were relatively dry storms. Had they been wet storms like Allison, the damage to Louisiana would have been much greater. If New Orleans received the 39 inches of rain that Houston received during Allison, it would overwhelm the pumps and would flood nearly as badly as with Katrina.

“Tropical Storm Allison produced severe storms, torrential rainfall, and associated flooding across the southern and eastern sections of the United States from June 5 to June 18, 2001.  After making landfall near Galveston, Texas, on June 5, the storm moved inland to near Lufkin, Texas.  Allison drifted back into the Gulf of Mexico on June 9, turned to the northeast, and made landfall again on June 10 near Morgan City, Louisiana.  After causing 24 deaths in Texas and Louisiana, Allison moved across southern Mississippi, southern Alabama, southwest Georgia, and northern Florida, causing 9 more deaths.  By mid-week, Allison stalled over North Carolina and produced more heavy rainfall and flooding before tracking northeast along the DelMarVa Peninsula and moving off the New England coast on June 18.  Seven additional deaths occurred in Pennsylvania and one in Virginia.  Figure 1 shows the path of Tropical Storm Allison, and Figure 2 shows the associated rainfall. Tropical Storm Allison caused more damage than any tropical storm in U.S. history, with estimates in excess of $5 billion.  Most of the damage and fatalities (22) occurred in Houston, Texas.  Storm rainfall totals peaked at 36.99 inches (Port of Houston) in Texas and 29.86 inches (Thibodaux) in Louisiana.  Since this was the area of extreme rainfall and greatest impact in terms of damage and fatalities, the report focuses on NWS performance in southeast Texas and southern Louisiana.”

The Black Swan of Coastal Ecology

This is a presentation at the University of Oregon Public Interest Law Conference, March 5th, 2010:

The thesis is that coastal restoration is impossible on the Louisiana Coast. The only way to preserve the coastal ecology is to allow the coast to retreat as the ocean rises. Continuing to support coastal restoration empowers interest groups whose long term goal is to use levees to hold back the ocean. This will destroy the coastal wetlands, while increasing the costs of the eventual destruction of coastal infrastructure by ocean rise and hurricanes. The Black Swan is that environmental groups cannot accept that the dynamic world of ocean rise makes traditional notions of restoration impossible.

Should we subsidize developing high risk coastal areas?

By Kathy Chu, USA TODAY
DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. — This island’s website couldn’t be blunter: “Dauphin Island is in a precarious position of being a barrier island, in essence an overgrown sandbar. This gives us a potential of being a disaster in the making. We have been hit by numerous hurricanes, Ivan, Frederic, Georges, Danny and many more!”…
The real irony is the claim that New Orleans is different from the other places built in high risk zones –  the problem in New Orleans is that the feds do not spend enough on levees to protect the city. Once the feds begin to subsidize high risk development, it is considered an entitlement and it is the feds fault, not the locals for the bad land use decisions.