Government & Politics

Levees vs. logic: Rigging federal flood insurance rates is dumb and dangerous

The levee failures following Katrina inundated more than half the city.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Improved  levees are no guarantee against the kind of flooding that followed Katrina into New Orleans.

With Katrina’s 10th anniversary and the worst months of the annual hurricane season fast upon us, thoughts turn to flood preparedness here in New Orleans — or the lack of it.

The bad news is that we remain dauntingly ill-prepared, both in terms of infrastructure and, just as important, our whole philosophy of public safety here in a very dangerous landscape.

That message was driven home forcefully, if unintentionally, by U.S. Sen. David Vitter during “field hearings” the gubernatorial candidate held in New Orleans this past spring.

Vitter was joined by his Senate colleague Bill Cassidy for the first of the hearings, this one under the aegis of the Senate’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, which Vitter chairs. The topic: the impact of rising flood insurance rates.

After the senators fielded a handful of mostly friendly questions from business folk in the audience, a panel of FEMA officials took the microphones to defend their view that “stronger and safer” housing is a good idea. This put them squarely at odds with the senators, both of whom predict a potentially catastrophic impact on the housing market if flood insurance rates begin to reflect actual risk.

Vitter, abandoning his usual free-market absolutism in favor of watered down socialism, declared it his goal to “find a way to deal with the solvency of the [National Flood Insurance Program] in a responsible way, but — at the same time — not do so solely on the backs of policy holders.”

The senators and special interests support this position with some very shaky logic:

They posit, for example, that the flood-control improvements built since the levees collapsed after Hurricane Katrina, somehow guarantee that New Orleans and its residents will never again suffer a repeat.

And yet the Army Corps itself, the agency that managed the $14 billion in post-Katrina flood-protection improvements, states bluntly that levees alone will never keep us safe.  That doctrine is supported by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) pamphlet entitled “So You Live Behind a Levee!”

The Corps’ Inter-Agency Performance Evaluation Taskforce (IPET) found that the root cause of the Katrina catastrophe was this: The New Orleans flood protection system was “a system in name only.” Its strengths were irrelevant because what matters in any system are the weakest links.

The new levees and pumps may make for a collection of unintegrated components stronger than the one that failed. But to create a system that is more resilient than the sum of its parts, we’ve got to move toward a much more holistic system that, as I’ve argued, includes widespread elevation of at-risk structures.

Instead, residents who have elevated their homes to protect against another Katrina have been attacked for drawing attention to the vulnerability of their neighborhoods and reducing the value of un-elevated homes. They have also been denied Road Home compensation for rebuilding at elevations that correspond to our highest storm of record.

Vitter expressed his belief that what New Orleans really required were “higher levees” and that the new levee system provides “all the safety we need.” His stance is in strong contrast to the Corps new approach: replacing flood-risk reduction with flood-risk management.

According to panelist Jerry Passman of the Louisiana Home Builders Association, “Home builders and developers rely on permitting programs and regulations that are consistent, timely and predictable.”  All too true, but in doing so, the builder, like the senators, is entering a dream world in which extreme floods never happen and, when they do, taxpayers eat the cost.

The Vitter/Cassidy dog and pony show was hardly the first time community leaders have urged us to ignore reality and the risks we face living in a flood-prone region at a time of rising tides.

Michael Hecht, head of the business incubator GNO Inc., has argued in this space for putting affordability ahead of safety. He warns that under a solvent National Flood Insurance Program, one where rates honestly reflect risk, “Owners will lose everything, values will plummet— if properties can be sold at all; bank mortgages will go into default, local tax bases will erode and regional economies will be eviscerated.”

At the end of the hearing, Cassidy remarked that it was “beyond his capability to understand” why new federal projects must be robust enough to withstand “500-year floods” — the standard also specified in the New Orleans Master Plan. (A “500-year flood” is a term of art, by the way. It doesn’t refer to events that can happen only twice in a millennium. A 500-year event is one with a .2 percent chance of happening every year.)

What Cassidy can not understand, the Dutch understand very clearly. They have fortified their coast against 10,000-year weather events — in other words they’ve built a flood defense 100 times more robust than ours at its best.

A second field hearing, this time of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee (Vitter heads the subcommittee) offered, along with much delusional rhetoric, at least a fleeting moment of truth-telling.

Col. Richard Hansen, Commander of Army Corps’ New Orleans District, had taken the stand when Vitter asked the West Point-trained engineer what concerned him most about the region’s hurricane protection “system.” Hansen responded without hesitating: “complacency.”

As was obvious from the context of his remarks, the colonel wasn’t expressing doubt that the Army Corps would complete the authorized flood barrier or raise it on an emergency basis to meet continuing subsidence.  He was referring to complacency among still at-risk residents who fail to recognize the residual peril to their neighborhoods that can not be met by the new system or, for that matter, any levees-only system.

Hansen’s statement put the senators and the Army Corps on diametrically opposite sides of the most important question regarding the continued survival of New Orleans as a city. Civil engineers are bound by a professional oath to “hold safety paramount.” For the Army Corps that meant serving notice to the senators that there is more to flood risk than is being addressed by implementation of the 100-year-storm benchmark mandated by Congress.

Vitter, for his part, remains implacably committed to the belief that the engineering faults experienced during Katrina have all been corrected, that a Katrina-sized flood could never happen again, and that the main thing wrong with flood protection now is that post-Katrina flood-insurance premiums are too high and must be drastically reduced.

With the safety of our residents at stake, it was impressive to see the Corps’ district commander, a professional engineer and supervisor of other professional engineers, stand up to political ideologues and special interests.

The principle long promoted by the Corps and other first-responders with a deep knowledge of disaster is that a real-world grip on risks is every citizen’s responsibility. We can only hope that City Hall will foster this principle and mount a concerted effort to assure that all residents have the information they need to act on the grave risks that remain.

Hansen’s was the proverbial “voice crying in the wilderness.” In most respects the field hearings were testament to the political power of business interests — developers and realtors in particular — who stand to profit from the delusion that average safety is the same thing as actual safety.

It is unclear whether Vitter and Cassidy know better and are pandering to these interests anyway or whether they have indeed drunk the Kool-Aid and entered the dream world themselves.

What’s needed is a national effort to reintroduce reality. Extreme events are inevitable. Common sense dictates that we have to stop building in dangerous areas and, if we already live there, to relocate or elevate. Using artificially low, subsidized insurance distorts the real risk that residents must assess and act on — even without leadership from City Hall and sometimes despite the active hostility of U.S. senators to what science can tell them.

Lake Vista resident K.C. King retired after 40 years as a systems analyst with Boeing.

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  • Chris McLindon

    K.C., you make a valid argument that we should all pay attention to factors that impact the calculation of flood insurance premiums. Chief among those that you did not mention is the elevation of the levees.

    Once constructed our protection infrastructure needs to be constantly monitored to insure it is maintaining the critical elevation relative to FEMA standards that ultimately determine rates. An integral part of this monitoring process is an understanding of the geological processes of subsidence. Much more academic research is needed in this area, and yet we are starving our university research institutions in favor of governmental agencies that are focused on trying to build new land. There should be a much more balanced sharing of funds between these two research efforts.
    You should also be aware that storm event calculations are specific to each area. The Netherlands does not have hurricanes. Their 10,000-year event is actually less than our 500-year event.

  • Good work Mr. king,
    Jr. and Sr. may lack beltway clout, but they sure are funny muppets-
    “Gee Bert- yesterday we wanted a free-market for Mr. Hoopers friends at Pain Management Cinics, so why the regulatory socialism today?”
    “ERNIE… regulations only count if we get more jelly beans?
    “But Bert, your friend Steve took 87% of my jelly beans to buy a whip I never got to snap”
    “Don’t worry Ernie, theirs plenty of free candy and toys in Washington if you know who ask- now get back to sleep…”
    Jokes aside-
    My wife and learned by doing post-K and built to LEED platinum standards for the same or less than conventional wood frame construction.
    240mph wind ratings- 3 hr fire walls- 1/5 the cost of a Make it Right Home, and done out of ICF, so no termite contracts, wood deck to rot- etc- etc…
    Yet there is no incentive for others to do the same-
    My Insurance goes up every year to subsidize wood frame homes- built out of subsidized lumber. NAFTA? Canadian subsidies? European imports? How much gov. $ is in a 2″ x 4″?
    Wood+ water= planned obsolescence and a guaranteed revenue stream for home builders and their associations.
    Yet it’s easy to bitch and harder to have solutions, if we want a greener and more “S” word NOLA, it starts fire walls and wind ratings. Banks can lend to that…
    Best from 5110 Freret,

    Andy Brott

  • While we like to look to the Dutch as a model, they face much less risk than we do. Their 10,000 storm surge is probably less than our 100 year storm. The massive storm that breached their levees in the 1950s had a 10-12 foot surge. If the Dutch faced our hurricane risk, they would not exist. They are also prepared to invest 5% of GDP in levee maintenance each year when our local tax payers vote down levee board taxes.

  • Tim

    The source of the threat is immaterial. The acceptable risk in the US is completely unacceptable in the Netherlands. Period. And I concur that a 1 percent per annum level of risk, the so called 100-year flood, is reckless and irresponsible. Would you board a plane with a 1 percent chance per annum failure risk? Would you allow routine surgery by a doctor who fails 1 percent of the time?

    Thank you, KC and The Lens for encouraging a real conversation about how vulnerable we truly remain.



  • nickelndime

    The logic behind the posit – that what happened in and to NEW ORLEANS during a hurricane named Katrina – will not happen again – reminds me of what the public is being told about brain-eating amoeba in parish water systems: YEAH, WELL, THE THREAT OF THE AMOEBA IS THERE, BUT YOU CAN DRINK THE WATER – JUST DON’T LET IT (THE WATER) GO UP YOUR NOSE. AND THE POSSIBILITY OF THE WATER GOING UP YOUR NOSE IS MAYBE 2 PERCENT DEPENDING ON HOW YOU INGEST THE WATER. YES, THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS UNDERWRITING GRANTS FOR GNO, INC. TO EMPLOY JOBLESS INDIVIDUALS TO PACKAGE STRAWS IN LOUISIANA (thank you, Vitter, et al.).
    07/29/2015 10:50 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    “nickelndime” has his ASP in his sock vest – which serves as a bullet-proof vest (BPV) and Life Support System (LSS)/personal flotation device – PFD),?with Uma Thurman lavendar scent to calm his nerve – which runs through his entire system. What has my ASP (that’s my pet snake ASP) on edge? Well, for one, WE are in the midst of yet another hurricane season. ASP still has flashbacks of when the water came in on the morn of August 29, 2005 A.D. and he was in an urn on the kitchen table (ASP’s relatives go way way way way —- back). But that’s just the “tip of the snake” and has nothing to do with “the head of the snake,”
    Now, WE (ASP and I) do not wish to discourage any of you other commenters from commenting (because WE is fluent), but “nickelndime” is tryimg to control his ASP and “huntNpeck” on the keyboard at the same time.
    07/30/2015 12:56 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    You are on a roll, “Andy Brott” of the great street of Freret. Please, WE (ASP and I) hope that “Freret” has not done anything thst the current mayor would consider worth changing or abolishing. U kno how Da City work! Well, Mitch will have roadblocks and barricades on yo street faster than “a cat can blink its eye.” Oh my bad, Da City alreadly done dat – not to worry. Ride a bicycle – dey is widening da bicycle lanes in yo area, which means, dat if you “follow da crumbs,” you can go home. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what matters the most! Oh, look at us, boy. WE are on short leases. That’s not the way it should be. Is it?
    07/30/2015 1:20 AM DST USA

  • Argol

    How about a comprehensive city-wide system of water management?

  • I agree, yet fear the public will is a glass half empty and will only change if we elect leaders who put logic and science above personal gain.
    Could point to the numerous examples of stupid- but that solves?
    How’s about legislation that forces entergy cox and ATT (or?) to put wires underground and provide fiber optics/high-speed infrastructure every time SELA and SWB does big drainage project?
    NOLA subsides daily, yet pump solutions into the trash, that needs to change.
    BFF (best from freret),

  • KC King

    A system? What smart engineers found after Katrina was “a system in name only” and NOTHING has changed. Special interests for real estate and development fear a systems perspective would destroy the real estate market by scaring home buyers. They (GNOInc) have corralled some citizens to deny that we are at any risk from sever flooding and focus only on subsidence and sea level rise. No systems are against the best interests of our commercial sector.

    Does that make anyone mad?

  • nickelndime

    “MAD AS HELL…” and
    then some. Have the residents of New Orleans gone completely “mad” or
    is this a just another fad? I would say more, but either they don’t “get it” or they are getting money off of the raw deal. Bryliski is one. Go ahead wit yo
    Bad self, C. and now you have put others on yo’ payroll. You have been reading yo own hype – CEOs being psid $330,000 salaries. Why not you and your propaganda machine – Coach bags and all. 7/31/201 6:51 AM DST USA

  • Yes Im mad, and glad your asking questions.
    Mr. Hect cries the sky is falling and our “economies will be eviscerated.”… WAKE UP!!!! It’s subsidized insurance, weakened building codes, and selective or non enforcement will get us, by artificially shifting risk off special interests and punish those who mitigate. “Affordability ahead of safety”? –
    Safety is affordable when the science of statistics gives a ROI to those who spend upfront to save later. Think 10 years, NOT 10 MONTHS!!@!!
    Sure a 6″ wall costs more, but gives an ROI in X years with money saved on energy to HVAC-
    Add 5/8″ drywall on the inside- + other fixes for a 3 hr fire wall it’s now “Full Masonry” and gives an ROI in X years…
    Mr. Hect – BANKS COULD LEND TO THAT!!!!! as quantified proven savings, but don’t- Why not focus on that? Or are you more in line with Tom Darden’s escape hatches on Make it Right McMansions?…
    Once again- please also look into lumber subsidies and the conventional stick built construction techniques builder associations push to keep cheap- They are like Detroit auto builders in the 1960-70’s- Make it rust out and stop in x years like a MIR wood deck.
    Please keep going Mr. King-!!!!
    Best from 5110 Freret,
    Andy Brott

  • dimdingledon

    Just as important and just as dangerous to public safety is the storm surge modeling used by the Corps of Engineers to design the new levee system. It under estimates our actual flood threat and as a result lowered the required height of the levees. The storms used were not really 152 storms like the Corps claims. It was a few dozen storm tracks with storms run over and over those same tracks. It also excluded any storms making landfall in New Orleans above a Category 3 and it included Category 1 storms as far east as Pensacola, but omitted major storms making landfall in New Orleans. And not one engineer from the Corps speaking the truth about it. What a cover up!!! So much for that motto about protecting the public.

  • nickelndime

    Please don’t get us riled up —- again. My ASP is in his gaddam sock vest (well, I ain’t telling him about the bullets) after yet another shooting. When it comes to reality, it is always better to underestimate. When it comes to “government,” there are no limits.
    Mitch and his entourage are prime examples of government waste and corruption. But Mitch is a bottom feeder. How does that make you feel? ARE YOU WORRIED YET!?
    08/02/2015 3:42 AM DST USA

  • DaRealness

    Good Morning Mr. King,

    I was reading your article this morning, which is very poignant and well-written, and I had to stop at the bottom where you stated:

    “We can only hope that City Hall will foster this principle and mount a concerted effort to assure that all residents have the information they need to act on the grave risks that remain.”

    I am an employee of the City Health Department and I am interested in what your vision of such a public education entails and what sort of details you believe need to be highlighted. I am also interested in any successful tactics to effectively share this knowledge with the public.

    Thank you very much for your work and consideration. Feel free to email your response to as well.

  • nickelndime

    Yes, Mr. King. Please do email the details of what you envision to the City employee. Just copyright it before you do. I have had one cocktail tonight on the verandah, and despite the moonlight and the jasmine, I smell a (exoletive deleted) RAT. $omebody needs to turn in a report and doesn’t know what to write.
    08/03/2015 12:25 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    WE would like to remind all you readers and bloggers that THE LENS actually reads what you (generally speaking) write and does not rely on computerized monitoring of key (tagged) phrases and/or every fifth word to censor (decide to delete) what you write. Having said that, my ASP (that’s my pet snake ASP) and I are having our second cocktail on the verandah, smelling (ASP’s fork-ed tongue) the jasmine and watching the remains of the July “Blue Moon.” LIFE IS GOOD, UNTIL…
    08/03/2015 1:51 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Rob Ryan’s “home is sinking.” This ain’t Texas, Babe!
    08/18/2015 3:51 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    WE ain’t got creeks. Louisiana is at another level – it’s called “below sea level.” Why do you think Harry Connick, Jr. lives in New York, but gives “commemoratives” (lip service) to New Orleanians post-Katrina? He’s not the only one, but he comes to mind. Raise your home, Rob, or get the cows to higher ground.
    08/18/2015 3:57 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    “nickelndime” has to report to his 7th job by 5:30 AM just to keep up with what THE ONE ASSESSOR, Erroll Williams, has done and rea$$e$$ed his property. Running water? What’s dat? Electricity? What’s dat? Vines covering the exterior of da home? Yeah, WE gots dat.
    Eat yo’ heart out, Betty Jefferson. You look like milquetoast.

    This is just one example of the power of the New Orleans electorate. Are you scared yet? You should be.
    08/18/2015 4:49 AM DST USA

  • Charlie Turner

    Getting mad at politicians for pandering to special interests will always be a waste of energy. If you think two Senators are going to voluntarily push for raising flood-insurance premiums and elevation requirements you will be disappointed. The only way our representatives will act on flood-risk management is by mobilizing the electorate.

  • nickelndime

    “Charlie Turner” is on-point. Bigger Question is – how do WE change the electorate. Cuz dis electorate ain’t working out. They are not even at Level 1. Mobilization is at like Level 5.
    08/18/2015 11:38 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    28 minus 9. 3 seconds off. OK. “Can you get to the breaker box, Ralphie?”‘
    08/18/2015 11:48 PM DST USA