I live in Uptown New Orleans. I ducked into our mid-city office to pick up my work computer Wednesday morning and then headed back home. It had been pouring for an hour as I drove. The streets on my route already had a few inches of water on them. As I watched cars plunging into deceptively deep standing water, I decided that it would be safer to get off the roads, so I pulled into the only place with a parking lot higher than the street level nearby — Popeyes Fried Chicken.
As I sat in my car in the parking lot with five other motorists who had the same idea, I watched the water rise from ankle-deep to waist-deep to chest-deep in a few hours. Three canoes and kayaks passed us.
I sat there for six hours while I waited for the water to go down enough to make it safe to leave. And no, they were not serving food, so I got no fried chicken or biscuits for my troubles. The National Weather Service estimated that 7 inches of rain fell in some areas of the city that morning. Parts of New Orleans that have never flooded were turned into rivers.
Unfortunately, this may turn into the new normal for us. Right now, the Mississippi River in New Orleans is at a height of 16 feet, and we have Tropical Storm Barry, which may become a hurricane, headed for our coast. Storm surge warnings and watches are already in place. In contrast, the river was only at about 2 feet when Hurricane Katrina hit the city back in 2005.
This new storm could send a storm surge up the river, putting additional pressure on our levees, which have already been under pressure since the fall. There are estimates that this is the wettest year on record for the Midwest. The Bonnet Carre Spillway is one of the main structures that provides something of a pressure valve for the river to protect New Orleans. Located directly above the city, when it’s open, the spillway allows water to flow into nearby Lake Pontchartrain, rather than continuing in the river channel through the city. The spillway has been opened twice this year, the only time it’s ever had to be opened twice in a year since it was built in the 1930s. And it is still open now, making this the longest time it has ever been open.
This weekend’s storm is catching southeast Louisiana in the middle of one of the largest restoration efforts in U.S. history. After the BP oil spill in 2010, settlement funds came into the state to rebuild our coast. Multiple barrier islands have been restored, and money is also being spent on marsh, wetland and ridge projects. These features, which are referred to as natural infrastructure, provide extra levels of protection against storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico for inland communities. They are essential for protecting human populations, helping to purify water and air and providing habitat for animals. We consider this a multiple-lines-of-defense strategy. Marshes, wetlands, ridges and barrier islands can all reduce wave height and surge from hurricanes and other storms. They protect our hardened structures, such as levees and pump stations. Coastal restoration should be considered an integral part of storm protection. The storm that’s building comes before most of the work is done, but we may have a chance to see how effective the effort has been so far.
Historically, the river was allowed to flood, extending over vast floodplains, replenishing the soil and decreasing the likelihood that individual floods would be catastrophic. With the building of the modern levee system on the Mississippi, which began after the flood of 1927, we have restricted the river to a narrow path with few outlets or relief valves. What this means is that the potential for catastrophe is much higher.
The idea was to allow safe and reliable navigation, but the current high river has made it nearly impossible to conduct business as usual this year anyway. So not only do we not have a thriving navigation business, but we also have increased risks for people who live along the river, and we have a dying coast that has been cut off from traditional sediment sources. In essence, no one is happy.
There is a better way to manage our river, to reduce risk, provide a thriving economy and rebuild our coast. We have to challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider a new model for how we manage the river. We need states to expand floodplains to allow more water storage. We have to retrofit our cities with better solutions for storm-water management, allowing us to live with water rather than have it cripple us any time it rains.
The Dutch are experts in this. They describe it as “living with water.” Instead of keeping water out, they design their cities to let water in. They also retreat from areas of high risk, and they don’t have extensive rebuilding in areas that have been devastated by recent storms. They have widened their floodplains and given water space to spread. If we had the political will and the money, we could do the same here in Louisiana.
We can do better than forcing people to sit stranded for hours in fast-food parking lots or on other high ground as their city floods over and over and over. I did eventually get home from the Popeyes on Wednesday. But we expect we’ll have to evacuate by Friday at the latest. After that, all we can do is hope for the best.