Can New Orleans Weather Another Storm?

Sep 5, 2008

The levees of New Orleans held fast against Hurricane Gustav but several more storms — including Hanna, Ike and Josephine — are now forming. Hurricane expert Ivor van Heerden discusses the levee reconstruction project and how New Orleans will fare during what is expected to be an active hurricane season.

Van Heerden is author of The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina.

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You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday, I'm Ira Flatow. For the rest of the hour the latest on the levees along the Gulf Coast. Gustav has left the area and while the storm did plenty of damage, the electricity is still out for about 800,000 people in Louisiana. New Orleans was spared the Katrina level of destruction of three years ago, and many of the citizens along the coast got lucky. Gustav, predicted to be a category four, was a category two by the time it hit New Orleans. And as we head into the peak of the hurricane season, we are seeing a long conga line of storms. You've got Ike and Hanna and Josephine on the horizon coming up. In New Orleans, well it dodged the hurricane bullet this time with the levees continuing to hold but my next guest doesn't know if it will dodge the next one.

Ivor van Heerden is the director of Louisiana State University Hurricane Center in Baton Rouge, he's also the author of "The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina. The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist." Welcome back to Science Friday.

Mr. IVOR VAN HEERDEN (Director, Louisiana State University Hurricane Center): Oh thank you very much.

FLATOW: Do you have electricity?

Mr. VAN HEERDEN: No, we don't have anything. We are - I actually had to drive some distance to find a telephone that worked.

FLATOW: How, it seems to be from at least the news stories we see on the T.V. these days that the levees did hold up. There was a little bit of over-topping but they seem to be doing their job on this one.

Mr. VAN HEERDEN: Well, you know, yes they did. But I think that in - what we really need to take from this - this is another big wake-up call, maybe the final wake-up call. Because for New Orleans, for the levees that got tested and failed during Katrina, this was a non-event, this was a storm, a cat two that missed New Orleans, that went on the other side of the river so to speak. It went west of the river. And yet as we saw on national TV, we had significant over-topping in the funnel area and especially the industrial canals. So, I certainly am not celebrating, I think this has pointed out once again how weak this whole protection system is.

FLATOW: You did a survey of the levee post-Gustav, what did you find?

Mr. VAN HEERDEN: Well we haven't completed it because it's literally hundreds of miles. But what we found was for the most part the levees did well, there was over-topping. However, there are sections down on the West Bank of New Orleans, on the home area, we haven't been able to look up. They had to do some shoring during the storm and right now they are doing some work on them. There is still a problem on the East Bank at (unintelligible) in a non-federal levee system close to a control structure that the corps of engineers is working on right now. But you know we were very lucky, there are some sections of the levees on the Mississippi River gulf outlet, the levee system that failed so catastrophically due to wave erosion during Katrina. Large sections are missing grass cover, and we were very worried about those in case we developed a large wave field in Lake Borgne, the water body that faces those levee systems.

FLATOW: So you're worried about false security here, the feeling that we're well it survived this one. We're pretty safe.

Mr. VAN HEERDEN: That's right. You know scientists like myself have been telling the past to be for years that at best New Orleans has category two protection, recently NOA came out and made the same statement. And I think the storm proved it. This was a cat two, west - way west of New Orleans and yet, in Lake Pontchartrain, in the funnel on the - across the river, so to speak, we had over-topping. And I think this should really get people to realize that New Orleans is still extremely vulnerable. But not only New Orleans, if this had been a cat four, then that part of the city south of the river, the so-called West Bank would've been totally inundated, as would the communities of Houma and Morgan City. And those two communities especially are very important to the outer continental shelf more than gas, mining and exploration and that's where the vessels come in to be supplied and there're some shipbuilding going on as well.

FLATOW: What is your advice then to protect the gulf there?

Mr. HEERDEN: You know the Mississippi River (unintelligible) to Louisiana, it has the ability right now to very significantly restore wet lands - we've just got to let the river go. You know, we've been talking about diversions and we have small little structures that some of them we only operate at 10 percent of their capacity. We've got to get the river free. We've got to give it the opportunity to rebuild, and to (unintelligible) our barrier islands have been totally decimated over the years. We could very easily rebuild them by mining sand from off-shore and in that way create another line of defense into which we, the Mississippi River to build, you know these wet lands in protected areas.

FLATOW: Can wetlands actually keep back the tidal forces or the storm surge of a number four hurricane?

Mr. HEERDEN: Yes, definitely. We've just completed a very detailed project with scientists from Delft University where we looked at both the impact of wet lands on waves, of on wet lands on surge, and in terms of waves, the wet lands can very dramatically reduce the wave energy, especially cypress swamp. But even a salt marsh can knock down the wave energy on a storm like Katrina by about 60 to 70 percent. If you look at the surge, what we're finding is the numbers initially put forward about dropping the surge three foot - I mean, one foot per three miles of wet lands, in fact are too low. It may - the reduction may be more like one foot per mile. And when you get to the cypress swamp, it's even better because these swamps do two things, one is they add friction to the flow moving through them but because they're so high, they separate the surge from the wind because of the tree canopy, and that reduces some of that energy pushing the water forward.

FLATOW: And how long though would it take to restore that kind of protection?

Mr. HEERDEN: Well I think on the barrier islands, you know, it was in about three years, if we could bring dredges from overseas, the right kind of dredges, we could totally rebuild the barrier islands. But on that front we're fighting the 1960, 1960 Jones Act that requires dredges that operate in the United States basically has to be build here...

FLATOW: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. There's a law from 1960 that says we have to use dredges that were built that made in America to get the work done we need.

Mr. HEERDEN: Yeah. The keel has to be laid in the United States.

FLATOW: Why is that?

Mr. HEERDEN: I don't know.

FLATOW: Oh let's knock it. Let's - I can't think of 100 reasons myself but let's move on and say that what you're saying is that we have to, we're not going to bring those dredges over, you're saying we have to put a new law in effect that does away with the old one.

Mr. HEERDEN: Well, a group of us from Macademia and also from industry, the oil and gas industry and major landowners in Louisiana, are working with the James Baker Foundation with the idea of trying to come up with some legislation that would allow us to go in and restore the barrier islands using federal sands from off-shore and also get a variance on this 1960 Jones Act. You know, in the past, I've done projects working with dredges and the marine diamond industry off the West Coast of Africa. So, I know you can move sand very rapidly in huge volumes and you can do it in open ocean conditions. I mean, the Dutch and British have shown how they do it themselves. So that's a case of - we just need somebody in government outside of Louisiana preferably in the White House to take the initiative and say we're going to do it. And you know, it's that easy. It could be done.

FLATOW: Get a little variance and get those big dredges.

Mr. HEERDEN: Yeah, the sand is there, and you know, since 1994 we've been working on this and we have the Mineral Management Service has agreed to allow the state to go and mine these sands. We've done most of the environmental impact studies that need to be done. A number of us have worked with all the national environmental groups to get their OK to do mining or if you will, offshore mining. Obviously we - they want to see all the impact studies done properly. So we - literally have all our ducks in a row but we just lack...

FLATOW: Isn't this something the Army Corps of Engineers is sort of you know, involved in?

Mr. HEERDEN:: Well, you know the Army Corps of Engineers has been the lead agency on the coastal wet lands restoration program that's been going on in Louisiana and we really, other than a lot of small projects, we haven't had much luck. And to my way of thinking, the Corps hasn't shown the leadership and maybe it's time to come up with something different. Maybe something like the Tennessee Valley Authority. I'm not sure. But this past week, I've been speaking to a number of congressional leaders and some former speakers of the House and so on. And you know, I think there's going to be a big move very shortly to try and get some changes made so that we can move forward on these big coastal projects.

FLATOW: Is there any way to redirect the silt back down to where it should be going?

Mr. HEERDEN: Well, you know, the Mississippi River in essence of - it's like a forest that's a renewable resource in that it brings sediment every year it floods, it brings tons and tons of sediment. Right now, it all falls often to 400 feet of water. So, creating diversions by cutting holes in the levees is an obvious solution but we could use things like siphons. We've successfully built a few siphons in Louisiana but they take surface water. One could potentially have the siphon inlet down the - towards the bottom of the channel where you get slightly coarser load and slightly heavier suspended sediment concentration and soften it out. In addition to try and mimic the natural flooding, we could have a siphon every mile. Imagine a three foot pipe every mile over the levees just flowing back into the drainage canals that then run off into the wet lands, and in this way, we start to introduce the nutrients. We start to introduce the sediments.

FLATOW: Sounds like a simple idea.

Mr. HEERDEN: Well, you know, what we've done to our wet lands by putting them in the straight jackets of the navigation and flood control levees is we starve them to death. And then we came and chopped them up with the creation of oil and gas pipelines and the other access canal. We just got to turn it around. We've got to remove that tourniquet from the arm, the Mississippi River and allow the hand to recover and with all its distributory systems, you know, we very significantly improve the system.

FLATOW: And under whose jurisdiction - in other words, who would make that decision to do that?

Mr. HEERDEN: Well right now all of that falls under the Corps of Engineers and you know, they are under instruction from Congress to come up with a large scale restoration and levee plan, some of what we've seen already and some of what we've heard is that this is really a bunch of old projects with it - covers dusted off, put into a big three- three-hole binder - and it lacks some of the - the new ideas. Some of the - it lacks a new of way of thinking you know. We've got the (unintelligible) River. We change it discharge and so on. But, Corps of Engineers, officials are telling us that you know, we can only take a very limited amount of water under the river because they're worried about navigation, but there's no studies.

FLATOW: OK. Let me just remind everybody that this is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. Talking with Ivor van Heerden of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center in Baton Rouge. So, are you optimistic about getting something changed here?

Mr. HEERDEN: I think so. You know, based on the phone calls I've been getting, since a week before Gustav and now certainly afterwards, as folks start to realize that this has really shown us how weak our system is. My sense says they are not congressional leaders and formal congressional leaders. We see this is as a real need. It's national need, you know from New Orleans while literally from Baton Rouge to the sea, that includes New Orleans, as the largest port in the world. Forty percent of oil and gas produced domestically comes through a pipe through Louisiana's wet land and there's a lot of oil and gas that comes out of our coastal area as well. So, folk tend to forget just how important these wet lands are beyond, you know the alligators and the fish.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. HEERDEN: So...

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you and stay in touch. We'll keep checking in on you as this hurricane season rolls along.

Mr. HEERDEN: Well, thank you, and thank you for the opportunity.

FLATOW: Hope you get your electricity back soon.

Mr. HEERDEN: Thanks.

FLATOW: Ivor van Heerden is director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center in Baton Rouge. He is also the author of "The Storm; What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina, The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist." Time now for our pick of the week. Here with that pick is Flora Lichtman, our editor for Digital Media. Hi, Flora. You got a couple of videos for us. Talking about videos on our website, if you want to see the latest videos that's and look in at our video pick. What have we got this week, Flora?

FLORA LICHTMAN: It's another double feature that we...

FLATOW: A double - get out the popcorn.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Exactly.

FLATOW: This is where I came in.

LICHTMAN: All right, the first video was submitted to us by a researcher, and it chronicles how they tag these giant blue fin tuna. And it's pretty amazing. They reel them in like they're fishing for them, and they're scientists, and then they plop them up on the deck and they do this superfast mini-surgery and insert this tag. It's pretty dramatic.

FLATOW: Yeah. Wow. And the second one?

LICHTMAN: And the second one involves a trip to the Insecttarium.

FLATOW: The Insecttarium.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, right.


LICHTMAN: It's a building on Yale's Campus. This little carriage house and it's filled with tons of butterflies and they're not just kind of regular old butterflies. Some of these butterflies have a special property to them. They have glow in the dark eyeballs.

FLATOW: Their eyeballs glow in the dark.

LICHTMAN: You got it.

FLATOW: We're going to see that in the video?

LICHTMAN: You see that in the video and basically the research is about how - it's not about eyeballs really. It's about eye spots.

FLATOW: Those big spots on the wings and how they got there. Why they evolve that way?

LICHTMAN: How they evolve.

FLATOW: But to do that, they have to see the eyeballs glow in the dark.

LICHTMAN: That's right. They have to make these mutant - these mutant butterflies that have a jellyfish gene in them.

FLATOW: Wow. If you want to see mutant butterflies with eyeballs that glow in the dark...

LICHTMAN: We're never selling(ph) it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's weekend show. But you know, with the storms coming up, that's some good viewing. A double feature from Flora Lichtman, our producer with Digital Media. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: As always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.