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Perilous Place, Powerful Storms

Perilous Place, Powerful Storms: Hurricane Protection in Coastal Louisiana

Craig E. Colten
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Perilous Place, Powerful Storms
    Book Description:

    The hurricane protection systems that failed New Orleans when Katrina roared on shore in 2005 were the product of four decades of engineering hubris, excruciating delays, and social conflict. InPerilous Place, Powerful Storms, Craig E. Colten traces the protracted process of erecting massive structures designed to fend off tropical storms and examines how human actions and inactions left the system incomplete on the eve of its greatest challenge.

    Hurricane Betsy in 1965 provided the impetus for Congress to approve unprecedented hurricane protection for the New Orleans area. Army Engineers swiftly outlined a monumental barrier network that would not only safeguard the city at the time but also provide for substantial growth. Scheduled for completion in 1978, the project encountered a host of frustrating delays. From newly imposed environmental requirements to complex construction challenges, to funding battles, to disputes over proper structures, the buffer envisioned for southeast Louisiana remained incomplete forty years later as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city.

    As Colten reveals, the very remedies intended to shield the city ultimately contributed immensely to the residents' vulnerability by encouraging sprawl into flood-prone territory that was already sinking within the ring of levees.Perilous Place, Powerful Stormsilluminates the political, social, and engineering lessons of those who built a hurricane protection system that failed and serves as a warning for those guiding the recovery of post-Katrina New Orleans and Louisiana.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-345-7
    Subjects: Sociology, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-11)

    Hurricanes have been a constant, if irregular, threat to New Orleans and its vicinity since the city’s founding in 1718. Even before surveyors platted the old Vieux Carré, a hurricane swept over the incipient settlement. Back-to-back storms in September 1722 and 1723 destroyed much of the new colonial capital, and at least nine additional storms battered the city before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Since becoming part of the United States, another thirty-seven storms have lashed the city, and others have swept ashore nearby, delivering rain and storm surges to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and Mississippi’s beaches.¹ New Orleans and its...

    (pp. 12-27)

    New Orleans occupies a place on a subsiding deltaic floodplain, on land built and formerly sustained by Mississippi River floods. Residents of the city and neighboring agriculturalists shared a fundamental concern with keeping the flood waters out of the city and off farm lands. Colonial policy, and subsequent state policy, sought to maintain structural defenses, at the same time deferring flood protection costs to other entities. Colonial law placed the levee-building responsibility on individual land owners, although local levee boards assumed that duty after statehood. By the late nineteenth century, Congress tasked the Mississippi River Commission with levee building and...

    (pp. 28-50)

    Coastal Louisiana entered a climatic cycle of more frequent hurricanes for slightly more than a decade following the autumn of 1957. Two massive storms bracket, both temporally and spatially, this period of elevated cyclonic activity for New Orleans: Audrey in 1957 and Camille in 1969. Although neither storm caused extensive damage to New Orleans, the first obliterated portions of the southwest Louisiana coast and the second produced similar devastation to the Mississippi shore. Coupled with tropical cyclones that made more direct hits on the New Orleans metropolitan area, this season of the winds prompted a massive response. Congress assigned the...

    (pp. 51-84)

    As soon as Congress authorized the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Project in 1965, Corps engineers embarked on detailed planning for the various components (see fig. 4.1a) Working with intense public interest to secure adequate protection for the next hurricane, both the Corps and its local partners initiated construction as soon as feasible. Initial activities focused on the ‘”barrier plan,” which included levees and structures to impede storm surge from entering Lake Pontchartrain along with levees. Passage of the National Environmental Protection Act in 1969 and enactment of the federal requirement for projects to prepare environmental impact statements provided an opportunity...

    (pp. 85-111)

    The communities along the narrow band of natural levee that follows the lower Mississippi River endured devastating impacts from Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Exposed to surges blown across the spindly finger of land that extends into the Gulf, the lower delta has been one of the most susceptible and most frequently impacted zones in Louisiana. For that exposed location, Corps engineers had to design and build “back levees” that would loop around the slightly higher ground and connect to the existing Mississippi River levees. On the West Bank of the river across from New Orleans, different conditions prevailed. There, proximity...

    (pp. 112-135)

    The hurricane-protection project lumbered along during the 1990s and the early 2000s. There were a few storms during that period to prompt pleas for acceleration of the deliberate pace. Yet in the decade and a half before Katrina (2005), public officials, the press, and academic researchers issued clear warnings about the continued hurricane risk in the New Orleans area. Disastrous forecasts aided officials who urged massive evacuations in early years of the new century when storm frequency picked up again. As the hurricane-protection project continued to creep forward, an entirely new initiative took form. In the mid-1990s, in response to...

    (pp. 136-150)

    In the years since Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, individuals and teams have authored countless accounts of the storm and its impact. Numerous quickly written books,¹ assessments of the levee failure,² and government investigations have reviewed the dramatic event from different perspectives.³ Those works focused largely on what happened during and immediately after the category 3 storm that became a catastrophe on an unrivaled scale. With different purposes and distinct conclusions, these chronicles made the first attempts at assigning fault for the levee failures, the ineffective social and political responses, and the challenges that face rebuilding a region. Such accounts are...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 151-168)
    (pp. 169-186)
    (pp. 187-188)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 189-195)