Evacuees wade down a flooded section of Interstate 610 as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston.
Evacuees wade down a flooded section of Interstate 610 as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston. David J. Phillip/AP Photo

More than a decade after Katrina pummeled New Orleans, Harvey has swamped Houston and highlighted the basic flaws in America’s approach to an imminent deluge.

This article is adapted from a column published by the nonprofit online news service The Lens, and used with permission.

August brings poignance to the politics of floodwater management in low-lying cities along the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the anniversary of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that triggered the second-most catastrophic engineering failure in human history. (The collapse of the New Orleans levee system is exceeded only by the Chernobyl reactor meltdown of 1986 in the annals of man-made fiascos.)

This past weekend, Texas found itself in the crosshairs. Harvey’s winds petered out fairly quickly after the system made landfall Friday night—the Category 4 hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm—but the storm then squatted mercilessly in place to dump staggering amounts of rain. Up to 50 inches were predicted in some areas before week’s end.

For Texas, the measure of dysfunction was a failure to coordinate evacuation orders. A climate-change denier, Governor Greg Abbott nevertheless urged everyone to get out of harm’s way. But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, remembering the catastrophic, sometimes lethal, traffic jams associated with past evacuation efforts, said not so fast. Rockport Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Rios told constituents who failed to leave town to write their names on their bodies with Sharpie pens so coroners would be able to identify their corpses.

Notwithstanding this version of the Texas two-step, the state seems to be faring better than Louisiana did during the Katrina/Rita double whammy of 2005, though there are some depressing similarities: splintered buildings, biblical floods, and images of residents trapped on rooftops. The Astrodome, haunted as it is by eerie memories for the New Orleanians who fled to it for shelter from Katrina, saw service again, this time for local residents. Yes, Rockport was battered and the high school lost its roof. But Harvey had taken fewer than a half-dozen lives as of Monday morning—compared with Katrina’s death toll of about 1,800.

The New Orleans floods earlier in the month weren’t even associated with a hurricane, just an incredible amount of rainfall: close to 10 inches in three hours. But as Texas served to remind us three weeks later, it’s time the Gulf got used to rainfall events of an intensity that the National Weather Service calls “unimaginable.”

Here’s what’s most concerning. Rather than radically reassess our relationship to storms and high water, something we vowed to do after Katrina, New Orleans reverted to form and began casting about for scapegoats and squabbling angrily over pump failures that flooded Mid-City and the Lakefront area.   

Global warming’s to blame. No, it was Sewerage & Water Board honcho Joe Becker with his lies about pump capacity in a city that’s half below sea level and utterly dependent on those pumps to drain itself. No, the rainfall amounts were simply off the charts—no system could keep up with them. The pump maintenance budget is underfunded. Catch basins weren’t cleaned. Mayor Landrieu should have rushed back more quickly from his conference in Aspen. To do what? Bail out the city with a bucket?

How quickly we seem to be lapsing back into the careless, won’t-happen-here attitude that turned Katrina, a storm that was only mid-sized at landfall, into a lethal catastrophe. After that ordeal, vigilance was declared a civic responsibility. Katrina had shamed government leadership at several levels, not just in the Bush White House, and we citizens bore a good bit of responsibility ourselves.

Achieving “resilience”—a favorite buzzword of various foundations that came down here after Katrina to save us from ourselves—has become a call to arms, albeit a sometimes vague and empty one.

But after a dozen years and billions of dollars spent shoring up New Orleans’s flood defenses, we are not resilient. Get with it, New Orleans. And the same scolding can be extended to the Texas officials who failed to work out coordinated messaging on evacuation.

Cities and states cannot reverse climate change on their own—though we would be fools not to do our part in stride with thinking people around the world. Kudos to Mayor Landrieu for defying the Trump administration and pledging support for the Paris accords. Kudos to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards for ending his predecessor’s obscene and craven pandering to the oil interests who ravaged our coast and now must be made to pay the piper. And Houston, however misguided the recommendation to shelter in place over the past weekend, has also been at the forefront of this awakening to reality: It is one of 10 American metropolises that have joined New Orleans in the global Large Cities Climate Leadership Group. (The others are Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle, members of a consortium that now extends to 58 cities around the world.)   

Hurricane Rita struck Texas and Louisiana in September 2005. Years later, American cities still struggle with successful flood infrastructure. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

For New Orleans, whose below-sea-level position makes it particularly imperiled, the August floods were a reminder of something we should take much more seriously than we have. We ought to apply more aggressively the lessons we claimed to be learning from the Dutch after Katrina. It’s a course of action that would amount to a sea change in how we approach the wet threat that surrounds us on every side.

We need to get as smart and wily about water as Rotterdam. New Orleans’s continued viability as a population center and commercial hub depends on it. We must learn to live with water, to absorb rainfall and storm surge in massive retention facilities, to designate greenspaces that double as parks. We need to stop paving our yards to make nifty little pads for the family car. We need to build absorbent rooftop gardens on as many buildings as can be put to that purpose.

God knows enough city and civic leaders and journalists enjoyed post-Katrina junkets that took us to Holland to observe their very different approach to water management. Many of the Dutch nostrums have been championed by our more enlightened environmentalists, architects, and city planners. And the Dutch are no slouches when it comes to coastal defenses. They have not settled, as we did, for levees strong enough to resist “100-year storms.” They have fortified their North Sea shores against weather events expected once in 10,000 years. That’s a system 100 times more “robust” than ours, to use another fashionable buzzword.

The fundamental shift would be to realize that, while our pumps and levees must be in tip-top condition at all times, we cannot pump our way to safety. We cannot wall out the water. The August 5 flood in New Orleans made a mockery of our unilateral obsession with water barriers. The enemy was within the levees, not outside of them.

What do we have to show for our official genuflections toward Holland? A little. Very little. We have re-opened Bayou St. John to a more natural confluence with Lake Pontchartrain. We have created the Lafitte Greenway, a prototype of something that should be done with every canal basin and batture in the region. Now and again a building goes up that can be celebrated for embodying what might be called Dutch treats: rooftop plantings, an unpaved courtyard.

Why are we building tracks for tourist trolleys in New Orleans instead of widening our neutral grounds to maximize their potential as green space? As Texas saw over the weekend, Houston’s signature ribbons of concrete make nifty riverbeds just when you might most urgently wish you could use them to escape the city in a bus or the family car. To Houston’s credit, it has a good record of creating and preserving parklands within the city over the past century. Unfortunately, that dynamic has been more than offset by explosive development and the paving of former pasturelands that once absorbed area rainfall.

New Orleans is spending $3 billion to redo the streets, with a third of that money dedicated to putting giant concrete tunnels under key arteries to convey water out of sight and out of the city, notes David Waggonner. Waggonner is the New Orleans architect who initiated the so-called Dutch Dialogues that brought expertise from the Netherlands to post-Katrina New Orleans. In his view, it is crucial that we pivot from the old paradigm—“pave, pipe, and pump”—and instead begin to “slow and store” water, pumping only as necessary. Reducing storm water to drainage—essentially equating it with sewerage—is “a perverse exclusion of opportunity,” Waggonner believes, especially in light of the worsening subsidence problems induced by excessive and continual pumping. Preliminary calculations indicate that even doubling the city’s pumping capacity would correct less than half the problem.

Following the Dutch Dialogues, Waggonner led creation of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, a multi-parish blueprint that looked at available public parcels and rights of way to reduce flooding and add value. The Lafitte Greenway, a part of the plan, has been used for some storm water management and flood reduction purposes, though not as profoundly as would the larger “blueway” Waggonner and the Dutch called for.

The Water Plan was central to the city’s subsequent prize-winning entry in the National Disaster Resilience Competition. Focused on the Gentilly Resilience District, the proposal backs selected development projects aimed at creating a more varied water system. It should also be a more visible system, says Waggonner, not one buried beneath city streets. That’s how you engage residents and other stakeholders in the mission that Waggonner and allies in the Water Collaborative, a nonprofit advocacy group, call “living with water.”

Bottom line: Waggonner sees smart water management as a way to upgrade public safety and induce investment in New Orleans. “If we want to live here,” he says, “we better figure this out.”

Amid the administrative disarray so flagrantly apparent in the aftermath of the August flood and power station fire, I cling to one narrow basis for cautious optimism. It’s this: While Becker’s initial flurry of misleading statements about the condition and functionality of the pumping system was disgusting, it was reassuring to see that the mayor and the City Council were having none of it. At the mayor’s behest, Becker and others at the water board are now on their way out the door.

As the Dutch made clear to Times reporter Michael Kimmelman, their revolution in water management isn’t just a burden shouldered grudgingly by a low-lying nation. It’s an exciting challenge, a source of pride—and a source of money. Exportable water management ideas are to the Netherlands as cheese and wine are to the French, Kimmelman quipped.

The Netherlands is pioneering—and, where possible, marketing—insights, attitudes, and technologies in demand around the world as weather worsens and seas rise. There’s an irony here. A hundred years ago, when the New Orleans pumping system was considered an engineering marvel, it was the Dutch who came to us in search of guidance. Their version of Katrina was the horrific 1953 inundation that made water management a national purpose of existential urgency. They turned disaster into a much more trenchant learning experience than we have.

We could be part of that engineering and commercial juggernaut. In a sense we are—but so far, our role is that of the coal-mine canary. We are a city that should be augmenting public safety by implementing the new water-management paradigm. The Dutch build purposely leaky levees and marvelous parks alongside massive flood gates attuned to the rhythm of the clouds and seas.

We chirp and flutter in our cage.

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