Follow the money: your tax dollars spent on sinking cities

What if we spent $14 billion U.S. tax dollars on New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to refortify the levees and anti-flooding systems… but it didn’t work?

That’s the question raised in this Full Measure “Follow the Money” investigation by Lisa Fletcher.

You can watch the video of the story by clicking the link below. The transcript follows.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Congress gave $14 billion tax dollars for the largest U.S. civil engineering project in history… to protect New Orleans and reinforce its levees. As the new and improved system faced its first big test over the summer, more cities are facing a costly fight to survive. Lisa Fletcher investigates the complications and questions that remain. 

Lisa: This is South Louisiana, living below the water line. Canals stretch through neighborhoods, the Mississippi River frames the southern border of New Orleans. And the shores of Lake Pontchartrain lie just beyond the suburbs. Most days, it’s a beautiful view with a fragile balance. But when storms hit, more than 900,000 people count on a thin line of levees to hold back the floodwaters.

Lt. Gen. Honore’: We’ve got to remember on any given day, Mother Nature can break anything built by man.

Lisa: Army Lieutenant General Russel Honore’ has seen the worst of times. He coordinated the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina 14 years ago. As commander of Joint Task Force Katrina…He faced the aftermath of a storm, reportedly strong enough to reverse the course of a river.

Lt. Gen. Honore’: There are reports that during Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi ran North. That’s how powerful it was.

Lisa: In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of the city – killed more than 1,800, and displaced more than a million people in the gulf coast. Many didn’t return. To this day — there are homes still untouched. A hospital abandoned. This Six Flags amusement park never reopened.

After Katrina, Congress approved billions of dollars to refortify New Orleans. $14 billion went to the largest civil engineering project in US history – for the Army Corps of Engineers to build pumping stations, storm barriers, and to reinforce hundreds of miles of earthen levees that run along Lake Pontchartrain, and form a fragile barrier between the water and the low-lying homes on the other side.

Before Katrina, levees had a single steel piling, driven 16 feet into the ground. Now, a T shaped wall is driven 100 feet down, and anchored on both sides – a major upgrade to withstand the force of water.

In July, the upgrades passed an important test. As Hurricane Barry barreled toward New Orleans, the Mississippi River was near record highs from spring storms to the north, and nearing the top of the levees. The predicted storm surge coming from the sea was the same height as the levees. New Orleans was caught between potential flooding from two sides. But when Barry hit, the levees held, and though flooded with rain, New Orleans was narrowly spared from a catastrophe.

But New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell credited luck more than the levees.

Mayor Latoya Cantrell: “We are beyond lucky we were spared. As those bands zoned in on New Orleans, it just seemed to go around us”

Lisa: It turns out that even with the expensive new improvements, there are still big problems. The stronger levees will not stop the rain, the greatest threat posed by slow moving storms. And that danger is compounded by another: The levees are actually sinking.

Lisa: So you expect the levees to fail?

Lt. Gen. Honore’: It’s not ‘if’ – it’s ‘when.’because they’re made out of dirt and rock and concrete and they can be overmatched either by rainfall or by water surge coming in.

And the price tag of any protection…Is growing.

In the next 20 years, according to one study — protecting all coastal cities in the US with seawalls — would require $400 billion dollars.

In 19 small communities – the cost to protect property and infrastructure is 1 million dollars per person!

One big question is how much good all of that would even do.

Ed Richards: You can keep those levees up, but New Orleans is, is rapidly becoming an island.

Lisa: LSU Professor Ed Richards studies how cities will weather future storms.

Ed Richards: Miami, inland flooding would be Sacramento. Tampa has a huge risk. North of Virginia beach is very high risk for flooding.

Lisa: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to protect a small slice of lower Manhattan – including precious Wall Street from flooding. That would cost $10 billion…Some of which would come out of the wallets of American taxpayers.

Lisa: There are a lot of cities asking for federal funding. There will be more as we continue to see these storms. Is there a point at which the federal government is going to have to choose which cities get saved and which don’t?

Ed Richards: The federal government’s been choosing forever. A lot of those small, poor communities in the Carolinas – maybe they’ll get a little bit of relief money. They’re not getting any money to save them. Go into the upper Midwest where there’s flooding issues – those folks feel completely abandoned. Money goes to politically powerful, economically powerful cities first. New York City, Miami, those are politically important cities. They’ll probably get money in long past coastal communities like New Orleans or a lot of the communities in the Carolinas that are basically poor, no real jobs space, no economic base.

Ricky Boyett: It’s much like a medieval city where you would build the walls to keep out the invaders. In this case, we’re building a ring around the city to keep out the water.

Lisa: Ricky Boyett is with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Ricky Boyett: You’re looking at 25 feet above sea level.

Lisa: He remains confident in the $14 billion improvements in New Orleans. But the Corps has notified Congress that the levees may need to be raised even higher, and they’ll likely be asking for more taxpayer money.

Lisa: Some people have suggested this is throwing good money after bad. Is there a point at which the money has to stop?

Ricky Boyett: Well, I think that’s a component of keeping the system at its level. That’s how it has to be done here.They’re the strongest levees in the country. They’re built to the highest standards that didn’t even exist prior to Katrina. We’re fully confident in the levees doing their job.

Lisa: But they need to be higher?

Ricky Boyett: You just always have to keep on that level.

Lisa: Considering the cost and uncertainties, Professor Ed Richards suggests it might make better sense for people to simply move.

Ed Richards: If we were to invest our coastal restoration money and as incentives and the building new towns inland from the coast, so you create a lot of housing units and people would organically move away from the coast.

Sandy Rosenthal: This was the level of water after it settled.

In the end, New Orleans residents like Sandy Rosenthal say they hope people will see fit to invest in saving New Orleans, rather than expecting people to move away from America’s at-risk coastline.

Sandy Rosenthal: I only hope that the people of America believe we still need New Orleans. And I haven’t even gotten to the fact that New Orleans is a historic gem, and if the country ever lost New Orleans, we would be missed.

Even the Army Corps admits it’s almost impossible to beat Mother Nature and the walls and levees are an imperfect solution. But one other place, also built under sea level is trying something different. The Dutch are finding ways to redirect the flood waters and surges, into urban catch basins and away from critical housing and infrastructure. 

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