The Blog

Investigate the Levees

At issue is not merely how some bad designs crept into floodwalls, but why the whole system failed, and what we can learn to prevent it from happening again -- in New Orleans and elsewhere.
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Kudos to John Barry for pushing what, until recently, seemed like a dead letter -- a federal "8/29" commission to investigate what went wrong with the New Orleans levee system during Hurricane Katrina:

The resolution approved by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East was proposed by authority Secretary John Barry, also the author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.

An 8/29 commission was originally proposed in 2006 by, a local group critical of the Army Corps of Engineers and its construction of the levees. The group gained support from Sen. Mary Landrieu for the proposal, but Landrieu has said her attempts have been blocked by Republicans.

Barry's resolution calls for the commission to look beyond the specific reasons levees and floodwalls failed during the 2005 hurricane and include a review of how hurricane and flood protection are designed all along the Mississippi River.

"I'm really asking that they take a comprehensive look at the entire Mississippi River system, the entire Mississippi valley, from New York state to Idaho," Barry said. "They should look, for instance, at the dams on the upper Missouri River in detail, because they have a real impact on the amount of sediment that's carried in the river, which has a real impact on the erosion of wetlands in Louisiana."

This is exactly right: at issue is not merely how some bad designs crept into floodwalls (a question that, criminally, remains unanswered), but why the whole system failed, and what lessons we might glean from that to prevent it from happening again, in New Orleans and elsewhere. As Barry so brilliantly documented in Rising Tide, in the 1920s the Corps of Engineers and other institutions (Congress, state and local agencies) were incapable of responding either to actual changes in the landscape or to advances in the scientific understanding of river flooding -- resulting in the terrible 1927 Mississippi River flood. The same was true of hurricane flooding in the 40 years before Katrina. Incredibly, it's true today as well - for both kinds of floods, as we can see by what's happening in the Midwest now. Only by looking at the whole system from stem to stern can we get our arms around these problems. Will it happen? With the Democrats in control of Congress and perhaps the presidency, maybe.

There's a good piece in the Washington Post today by the redoubtable Joel Achenbach addressing this issue. Agriculture has altered the physical landscape of Iowa in ways that scientists and engineers don't fully understand or appreciate, and that is compounding the current flooding disaster.