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

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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

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

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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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