500-year protection for under $2 billion? Why wait 20 years to start?

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Reapirs to New Orleans' current "100-year" flood defense have already cost more than $10 billion, and yet the coastal master plan projects "500-year" protection for a mere $1.8 billion more? (Dana M. Clark, Flickr Creative Commons)

Thursday, The Times-Picayune ran a front-page story on the state’s newly-released 50-year strategy to confront south Louisiana’s coastal loss crisis. Like many previous plans, Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast makes a compelling case for restoration while not downplaying the complexity of the challenge. The master plan draft recommends a variety of approaches to repair the eroding coast over the coming decades, including river diversions, marsh creation, higher levees, and elevated houses.

However, I was puzzled with this claim made in the T-P’s account of the plan:

“Between 2032 and 2061, the recently completed 100-year New Orleans area levee system would be upgraded to provide 500-year protection for $1.8 billion.”

That’s a project of massive importance to New Orleans, yet no details were provided. I consulted the plan’s project list and, sure enough, in the 2031-2061 Southeast Coast section there is a structural project labeled “Greater New Orleans High Level” for a cost of $1,752.99 million (about $1.8 billion). I thought, “Surely this can’t mean an ‘upgrade’ to complete 500-year protection – protection against the biggest storms the Gulf whips up, storms two or three times the strength of Katrina at its peak. There’s no way in hell that we can raise the city’s levee system that robust for only $1.8 billion. Not now, and certainly not in two or three decades.”

Are we supposed to believe that the $10-plus billion spent to “upgrade” New Orleans-area floodwalls and pumps to 100-year protection (that’s the level they were supposed to be at, pre-Katrina/Federal Flood) just to wait a few decades before adding the final $1.8 billion to increase us to 500-year protection! It seems ridiculous that we could make such a large improvement at such a relatively small cost. Raising dozens of miles of levees from, say, 15 feet to 35 feet is an enormous undertaking. I spoke to an engineer about this and he reminded me that a 35-foot levee is almost as tall as a four-story building.  And it’s not just a matter of height. According to the engineer, a 19-foot levee with 1-on-4 slopes is 162 feet wide, while a similarly constructed 35-ft high levee would be 290 feet wide. That would require securing 128 feet more real estate, or thereabouts, throughout the levee system. In other words, I’d be shocked if the land requisition costs alone don’t run into the billions of dollars before the first shovel of earth was turned. (And don’t forget the lawsuits, much less inflation in construction costs, subsidence and unwelcome surprises.)

When responding to a query about tradeoffs in the new plan, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves told the T-P:

“Could you take $300 million to protect Isle de Jean Charles or some other smaller community? Yes, you could do that… But what that means is a trade-off for maybe the 500-year level of protection for New Orleans, where you get the best bang for the buck.”

If true, Graves is right. That’s a helluva “bang.” But in what dreamland can Greater New Orleans possibly achieve 500-year protection for only $1.8 billion? The number seems wildly, outlandishly low. Yet the T-P ran it without a blink, and the Coastal Czar seemed to confirm it. (And a recent editorial in the T-P offered no warranted skepticism about the projected cost.)

But let’s suppose that, somehow, it IS correct and we can raise the levees to 500-year standards for $1.8 billion. Given the immense risks to property and life, wouldn’t it be almost criminally negligent to wait three decades before doing so? Again, it’s ridiculous to think we invested over $10 billion in the levees, floodwalls, and pumps around Greater New Orleans to bring them up to 100-year protection, when we only needed to kick in another $1.8 billion to get 500-year protection. If we can do this now, for less then $2 billion, then let’s get started ASAP, not in three decades!

The coastal plan is a fine document, but the real headline, in my view, is the state’s belief that they can deliver 500-year storm protection for Greater New Orleans for the bargain price of $1.8 billion. And the subheadline to that should be: “Inexplicably, they suggest we wait decades to do it.”

There’s a one-in-four chance of a storm greater than 100-year strength occurring during the next 30 years. With the protection we have now, a very severe weather event could potentially flood 190,000 structures, kill 10,000 New Orleanians and cause $47 billion in damage. If we can truly upgrade our flood protection for $1.8 billion, wouldn’t the reduction in yearly risk and lower insurance premiums more than justify immediate action?

An email on the issue, sent late last week to the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, was not immediately returned. I’ll post any responses that I receive. The next public meeting for comment on the new coastal master plan will be  Jan. 23, 2012, from 1:00 to 7:30 p.m. at the University of New Orleans – Lindy Boggs Conference Center Auditorium.

If we can “upgrade” to 500-year protection for $1.8 billion, then let’s do it now. And if we can’t, and the true cost is much, much greater, then there’s a big gaping hole in the state’s new coastal plan.

 

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