By Milo Kashey
The Lake Borgne Storm Surge Barrier rose out of the muddy water like the walls of a mythological fortress, towering over the grassy banks and placid waters outside New Orleans East. The flood wall was a wonder to behold: 1.8 miles of concrete pilings that stood 26 feet above sea level, supported by 240-foot-long steel pilings that braced the wall against the catastrophic forces of nature. Standing on the concrete maintenance pathway atop the wall, the wind was strong enough to lift a hat off a head. The wall spanned the mouth of Lake Borgne and beyond lay the enormous Gulf of Mexico. Its builders, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, have been valiantly defending the New Orleans metropolitan area since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, though not without great cost.
Various projects organized by the Corps have come under public scrutiny. People asked questions such as: What are the environmental impacts? The socio-economic impacts? Where is the funding coming from? Who is responsible for maintenance? Are we safe? But when it comes to the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS), US Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs Specialist Rene Poche believed the project was crucial to the longevity of the entire United States economy.
“The system was designed to reduce risk for infrastructure more than anything else. This system allows the Metro New Orleans area to continue to operate, and the ports along the river are so important to what happens to the interior of the country. If you didn’t have New Orleans, it would be really hard to operate the Mississippi River the way it’s currently operated. That’s how important the system is,” Poche said.
This system Poche was referring to is the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, a 133 mile perimeter of surge barriers, floodgates, levees, and pumps that surrounded the Metro New Orleans area. New Orleans, which currently rests at a lower elevation than Lake Ponchatrain, is especially vulnerable to flood damage. As stated by the name, the system was responsible for protecting the city from the water rise associated with hurricanes and other large storms. The desperate need for the system became clear after the flooding devastation of the infamous, near-apocalyptic Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
During the storm, floodwalls all over the city collapsed and the pumps failed. Hundreds of thousands of citizens lost their homes due to the flood, and an estimated 1,800 lost their lives. For the Corps, it was a shocking blow to everything they had worked for. “It became personal for us,” Poche said “A lot of people, when they see the Corps of Engineers, they think of it as this faceless organization. Their feeling was: you’ve got all these people that are going to swoop in, build this thing, and leave. Well that’s not the case, because we’ve got 1,200 [Corps Employees] in the district who are local and 30% of that 1,200 lost their homes [during Katrina] so it’s very personal. And we’re still here.”
That personal sentiment is part of the reason the Corps kept tabs on all their projects. They worked in conjunction with the Flood Protection Authority (FPA) and Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) to maintain and operate the entire Risk Reduction system. Since the FPA and the CPRA were funded by the state, they were primarily responsible for the day-to-day operation of the pumps, gates, and walls. However, all three organizations were in constant communication, sharing responsibility for the protection of New Orleans.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the HSDRRS was being gradually built with incremental funding from both the federal government and the state. Every year, the Corps was given a relatively small amount of money with which to work, so “The system in place was a very incomplete structure prior to Katrina,” according to Poche. Katrina was a major wake-up call. The US Congress immediately funded a 14.6 billion dollar construction program and instructed the Corps to do everything they could to prevent any future storm damage to the city. For Poche, it was the ultimate green light. He said, “With the full funds we could go guns-a-blazing and build the whole system.”
They certainly did. The usual procedures for such a project were thrown aside and the Corps began work right away. Under normal conditions, the Corps needs to run hundreds of surveys and ecological tests before being approved by several committees within the state and federal government. However, given the disastrous impact of Katrina, the Corps was given “Alternate arrangements for mitigation,” according to Poche. He said, “The President’s council on environmental quality allowed us to go ahead and build the projects and then do the mitigation after. Because had we done it the traditional way, we’d still be building the system.”
Speed and efficiency were of the utmost importance in the building process since hurricane season was a yearly occurrence for New Orleans, and the city was already vulnerable. The Corps got straight to work, strengthening the existing flimsy floodwalls with concrete and steel buttresses to form what’s known as inverted T-walls, which are much sturdier than the old I-walls. They lined the base of the walls with concrete to prevent erosion, which had been a major factor in weakening the old structures. When water came through with enough force, it could knock over an I-wall, but the new inverted T-walls significantly lessened the chance of structural damage. The Corps also built a massive system of pumps and floodgates to drain water from flooding areas into the Mississippi Delta. “As a result of all that we have a system that’s stronger than ever before,” said Poche.
To speed up the process, the Corps implemented a design-build strategy. Contractors were actively designing parts of the project as construction took place, in order to have the system ready as soon as possible. 1.1 billion dollars went towards constructing the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, which was the largest design-build in US Army Corps of Engineers history. Due to the design-build methods of the Shaw Group, which partnered with the Corps, the wall took only three years to complete. In June 2011, the barrier stood tall and complete, a new weapon against the water in the Gulf. To manage traffic, three gates were implemented along the wall that allow barges and other maritime trade vehicles access to the Mississippi River from the Gulf. It was an epic testament to the resilience of New Orleans and the ingenuity of its engineers.
Of course, Poche realized that “we could stand out there and say we’ve got a great system and all that but unfortunately the only way to know if you’ve got a good system is to test it. Back in 2008 we definitely had an incomplete system [compared to current structures] but we had made some good improvements [since Katrina] so when Hurricane Gustav came in, the areas that people were concerned about had no issues. The system performed the way it was supposed to. Over the last few years, Hurricane Ida being the most recent, we saw what the system can do when it’s operated and maintained: it performs as designed.”
“When it’s operated and maintained.” Those are the key words that worry some New Orleans citizens like freelance journalist Matt McBride. His main concern is that the Corps rush into these projects without thoroughly analyzing the long term consequences. For example, the pumps at the edge of Lake Ponchartrain were vulnerable to rust due to the salinity of the lake’s brackish water. McBride said via Twitter that “The pumps at the three New Orleans outfall canals were not the only Corps equipment plagued by corrosion. The same thing happened to Corps pumps in St. Bernard Parish and on almost all the major structures the Corps built.”
McBride’s sources tell him that the supports on the pumps are “ready to fall off with 95% to 100% of their supports gone.” Without the pumps, the city has no way to move flood water from the city to Lake Ponchatrain, leaving infrastructure vulnerable to damage. The Corps has used all 14.6 billion dollars sent from Congress, leaving the state of Louisiana to pay back 35% of their debt while also paying for general repairs and maintenance. Besides the economic damage, some citizens are concerned about the ecological damage these massive concrete structures could have on the environment. Constricting the natural flow of water weakens the wetlands, which are a natural barrier against storm surges. Additionally, so much construction can cause pollution and harm to swamps and wetlands.
The Corps addressed the potential ecological problem by partnering with the local community. Poche said, “It’s all coordination: we don’t operate in a vacuum here. We want the public’s input whenever we’re building any of these projects because they live right there, they know the lay of the land. Some of the public input for the Risk Reduction system was incorporated into the design of the projects.” A perfect example was in the construction of the West Closure Complex, which butts up against Jean LaFitte Park. Poche described how, after mitigation with the EPA and public officials, a “140 ride away between the project and federally protected limits was enforced heavily. One of the contractors there accidentally strayed into the federally protected area and did a little bit of damage, and it wound up costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. He had to restore the area back and he did incur the wrath of the federal government. The environmental impacts are a huge consideration when any Corps project is built.” Furthermore, this is when the triarchy between the Corps, FPA, and CPRA came into play. CPRA was Louisiana’s primary security force for the natural wetlands. They partnered with the Corps on all projects in coastal Louisiana to ensure ecological safety by running tests, conducting experiments, and reporting their findings.
While there may have been detrimental factors behind the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, the Army Corps of Engineers believed it was the key to saving New Orleans and therefore the US economy as a whole. Poche admitted that “People lost loved ones and their homes [in Katrina], so they had a lot of reason not to trust the Corps, we had to earn that trust. And that’s something we’ll continue to do.” The only way to earn trust is through action that justifies your commitment. Poche thought that the Corps has done great work in doing so. “I think our actions over the last 15-16 years have spoke volumes to the Corps’ commitment to this region.”
The Corps have certainly dedicated a lot of time and money to their projects around New Orleans, but will it pay off?
Stacy Gilmore, Public Information Director for the FPA East, made an ominous reminder. She said, “I think we forget how powerful water can be.” And there sure was a lot of water. The storm surge from Hurricane Ida in 2021 left an apparent water line on the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, almost halfway up the 26-foot wall. During the hurricane, huge amounts of water from the Gulf of Mexico were pushed through Lake Borgne to slam against the wall with incredible force. Luckily, the steel pilings that reinforce the wall held firm. However, the city wasn’t perfectly safe. Entergy structures along the Mississippi collapsed, leaving parts of New Orleans without power for over a month.
To that point, Gilmore said, “This is a great system against the water, but people still need to be prepared for the other effects of hurricanes.” High winds and lashing rain are also dangerous during the many hurricanes that came to New Orleans every summer, causing damage to many homes. Beyond that, the HSDRRS isn’t perfect. Ultimately, Gilmore said, “[The system] reduces the risk. We are better off than we were before. But there are still so many factors in hurricanes.”
The Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System was designed to do just that: reduce risk. The infrastructure of New Orleans has always been vulnerable to storms due to its unique geographical location. In the end, according to Gilmore, “We can’t out-engineer Mother Nature.”