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.

Numbers Game: History says we’re due

Nature’s Ultimate Weapon: Biggest storms can release as much energy as 15 atomic bombs

Revisiting Georges: New Orleans’ close call with disaster

The Scourge of Surge: A look at how storm surge can tower over levees

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.

Community Resilience – Lessons from Katrina

This report was published in 2008. While there are problems with some of the assumptions, New Orleans is no better prepared today than in 2008 because none of the sociological factors have changed – denial is still the operative planning assumption.


From Robert Kates:

Here is a summary of eight major findings on resilience from the history of New Orleans that will appear in a forthcoming article with Tom Wilbanks on adaptation and resilience and is based on our CARRI report (Colten, Kates, and Laska 2008).

Climate Change Threats to National Security

National Security and the Threat of Climate Change

In 2006 CNA convened a Military Advisory Board (MAB) of eleven retired three-star and four-star admirals and generals to assess the impact of global climate change on key matters of national security, and to lay the groundwork for mounting responses to the threats found.

In April 2007, CNA released the MAB’s landmark report, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, that articulates the concept of climate change acting as a “threat multiplier” for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world and identifies key challenges that must be planned for now if they are to be met effectively in the future.

CLIMATE CHANGE ADAPTATION DOD Can Improve Infrastructure Planning and Processes to Better Account for Potential Impacts, GAO-14-446 (June 2014) (Original link with flooding video)

What GAO Found
In its Fiscal Year 2012 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, the Department of Defense (DOD) identified climate change phenomena such as rising temperatures and sea levels as potentially impacting its infrastructure, and officials at sites GAO visited or contacted noted actual impacts they had observed. For example, according to DOD officials, the combination of thawing permafrost, decreasing sea ice, and rising sea levels on the Alaskan coast has increased coastal erosion at several Air Force radar early warning and communication installations. Impacts on DOD’s infrastructure from this erosion have included damaged roads, seawalls, and runways. In addition, officials on a Navy installation told GAO that sea level rise and resulting storm surge are the two largest threats to their waterfront infrastructure. For instance, they are concerned about possible storm surge during work on a submarine that will be cut in half while sitting in a dry dock. Officials explained that if salt water floods the submarine’s systems, it could result in severe damage.
DOD has begun to assess installations’ vulnerability to potential climate change impacts and directed its planners to incorporate consideration of climate change into certain installation planning efforts. Further, it is a DOD strategic goal to consider sustainability, including climate change adaptation, in its facility investment decisions. However, GAO identified some limitations with these efforts. Specifically:
• DOD has begun collecting data on historic and potential future vulnerabilities from coastal locations (installations and associated sites) and is developing regional sea-level rise scenarios for 704 coastal locations to be used following the collection of these data. However, it has not yet developed a plan or milestones for completing these tasks, including when it expects to finish data collection on a total of 7,591 locations worldwide. Without a plan, including interim milestones to gauge progress, DOD may not finish its assessments in a timely and complete manner.
• DOD guidance requires that both installation master planning and natural resources planning account for certain potential impacts of climate change, but the implementation of these requirements across the department varies. Installation planners said that they lack key definitions and updated guidance on construction and renovation going beyond current building codes to account for climate change. Without additional information, installation planners will be unlikely to consistently account for climate change impacts in their Master Plans and Integrated Natural Resources Management Plans.
• Installation officials rarely propose climate change adaptation projects because the services’ processes for approving and funding military construction projects do not include climate change adaptation in the criteria used to rank potential projects. As a result, installation planners may believe that climate change adaptation projects are unlikely to successfully compete with other military construction projects for funding. Without clarification of these processes, DOD may face challenges in meeting its strategic goals and the services may miss opportunities to make their facilities more resilient to the potential impacts of climate change.