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Lessons learned?
September 5, 2005 11:30 PM   Subscribe

New Orleans' critical 17th Street Levee has apparently been plugged, but more work remains. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a 1999 report, National Register Evaluation of New Orleans Drainage System, that discusses changes to the system throughout its history. It's worth noting that delays in implementing sewage and drainage improvements go back to the 19th century, even after the American South confronted the deadly Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878 (the last U.S. case was in 1996). More inside...
posted by cenoxo (9 comments total) noted in Chapter 2 (100 kb PDF) of the report:

...many Southern cities instituted comprehensive efforts to solve the problems of sewage disposal only after 1878. A yellow fever epidemic in the Mississippi Valley in that year stimulated an intense concern among business leaders about public health in a number of urban centers. The epidemic resulted in 20,000 deaths and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in business revenues. Earlier in the nineteenth century, outbreaks of yellow fever, as well as cholera and smallpox, were recognized as having an adverse economic effect in addition to representing major causes of mortality. However, the diseases were often viewed simply as part of doing business in cities which were located in inherently unhealthy areas.

The 1878 outbreak of yellow fever, which stimulated much concern with public sanitation in the American South, began in New Orleans. By August 1878, approximately one-fifth of New Orleans population had fled, and in doing so they spread the disease to other Southern cities. Many cities invoked a quarantine, but New Orleanians still managed to find refuge there. When the first case was reported in Memphis, a human stampede resulted. Less than half of Memphis population of 48,000 remained in that city three days later. Despite a growing awareness of the importance of public health and the development of infrastructure, systematic improvements in New Orleans drainage and sewerage would not occur in the 1870s, or even the 1880s, but in the second half of the 1890s (see Chapters 3 and 4).

Let's hope the lessons of the most recent hurricane are not forgotten again twenty or thirty years from now.
posted by cenoxo at 11:30 PM on September 5, 2005

You know, for what it's worth, I don't think most people are upset that NO flooded. Yes, some folks are blaming Bush for cutting the funding for levee improvement so drastically, but that's not the core issue.

The core issue is the completely inept disaster response. Among a host of other problems, we had 20,000 people penned up like animals without food or water for five days. I, at least, am well beyond fury that we took five days to get help there. Even at THAT it was incompetent and half-assed. They had to carry some of those poor people out because they were too weak to stand. That is so far past reprehensible that I simply don't have words.

The flooding may not have been preventable, but many, many subsequent deaths were completely needless and totally irresponsible.

THAT, I believe, is what folks are really pissed about. We're not crying that the milk was spilt, but rather that the mess was just left to rot on the floor for days.
posted by Malor at 11:49 PM on September 5, 2005

Thanks, Malor, for summing up a lot of my feelings.

I'm at the point we're I'm at peace with the reality in America of not being concerned with basic infrastructure, and the lack of attention to the levees is just a symptom of a larger problem. Our trains run slowly. Our roads are falling apart. Our power grid occasionally has a catastrophic failure. But when we can't even make up for our lack of interest in unsexy infrastructure with the rapid response and attention from the government in the wake of infrastructure failure, it's pretty hard to take.
posted by deanc at 11:59 PM on September 5, 2005

Extending the spilt milk metaphor, It's more like they stood around pointing guns at the milk on the floor and at anyone who attempted to clean it up, until it rotted a hole in the floor.


Also, there is a Superfund site right next to one of the breached levees.
posted by blasdelf at 2:00 AM on September 6, 2005

Well, Chicago dealt with repeated cholera epidemics with fair alacrity, but typhoid fever continued to be a problem until 1900 when they reversed the flow of the Chicago River. The waters laden with sewage and industrial pollutants flowed through a canal to the Illinois River and then the Mississippi, instead of the lake where the city gets its drinking water.

Still, even the history of that project shows that engineering takes time. We decided to build the Deep Tunnel (a 130 mile sewer relief valve) in the 1970s, but it only went into service in 1985 and still isn't 100% finished.

Anyway, I'm repeating again that I'm a levee skeptic. The levee approach has the flaw that a single point of failure can be a disaster. Every part of the defense has to be built to the maximum spec or the entire thing can be worthless. Levees can also trap water where it isn't wanted. There are numerous negative environmental effects, too. The point of failure in NOLA was a canal levee where a flood wasn't expected -- something like an unlocked back door.
posted by dhartung at 2:07 AM on September 6, 2005

Malor has a point about the immediate anger arising from the immediate problems facing thousands of refugees, but as we get farther away from the immediate catastrophe we'll look further back to other root causes, and find that lack of attention to infrastructure is a big one. If our nation can become indebted $300,000,000 (so far) because our Boy-President was playing with matches and -- whoops -- started a war of aggression with real soldiers he now found under his command, and if we have twice that amount to facilitate tax-looting for multi-millionaires, the fact that we can't get a little here and there for projects that actually affect our communities' well-being will become a more and more important story. The catastrophic flooding of New Orleans would not have happened at all if levees were built to withstand category 5 hurricanes, and they could have been. See the Houston Chronicle article about the levees Dec. 1, 2001, and the October 2001 Scientific American article prophetically titled, "Drowning New Orleans."

In his NY Times op-ed article Paul Krugman adds a third issue -- the Bush regime has pretty much destroyed FEMA. He quotes the former head of FEMA, James Lee Witt, as saying to a Congressional hearing, "I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded. I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared."

Rove et al. can successfully spin stuff when the public doesn't know any better, but about Katrina and the Iraq war we likely learn more from national and international news sources on the internet than the Boy-President, who probably doesn't even read the comix, learns from his handlers, who tell him what they think he needs to know without confusing him with too many facts. Spin stops spinning when it hits a solid wall.
posted by Enkidudl at 2:07 AM on September 6, 2005

In other news, the Netherlands has offered to send levee experts to help in the rebuilding process. They know a thing or two about living under sea level.

Sadly, this was not a question of not knowing how to build a proper levee. This was a question of money. I wonder how the issue of tax reform looks to the politicians of Louisiana now? Not to sound too much like a socialist here, but you get the infrastructure you pay for (just like you get the government you vote for).
posted by moonbiter at 3:18 AM on September 6, 2005

What's the lesson learned here? Well, let's see- the "elite" Army Corps of Engineers arrived on the scene and scratched their heads for three days about how to approach the problem. Local New Orleans contractors get fed up and just go and start plugging the damn hole with metal and elbow grease. Because of (insert your own reason here), there's severe lawlessness in some parts of the city, which leads to an ugly incident where those same guys wind up getting shot at by locals.

And now, the ACoE is getting all the credit in the article you link. The employees of Boh Brothers, IMO, deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor (not that Medal of Freedom we give out to people who fail miserably at their jobs).

The lesson is that you don't have to be poor or black for your government not to care about you.
posted by mkultra at 6:50 AM on September 6, 2005

dhartung noted: "...the history of that project shows that engineering takes time", which is a key point. Time to let the water levels equalize on both sides of the levees, plug the breaches, and get pumps in place and running. The complexity of the situation outweighs any perceived government apathy, and further delays—including new hurricanes—can occur anywhere along the line:

Draining New Orleans Easier Said Than Done

The people trying to drain the water from New Orleans back into Lake Pontchartrain are learning that the task, while simple in theory, is extremely difficult in practice. They are fighting the laws of physics, poor communications and the dark side of human nature. The Corps of Engineers says the job will take one to three months, minimum. That's if no major tropical fronts move through the area. With nearly two months left in the hurricane high season, weather experts in the U.S. could face another half dozen storm events.

Their work is invaluable, and Boh Brothers Construction is one of many local contractors working with the USACE, not in spite of them.
posted by cenoxo at 9:11 AM on September 6, 2005

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