Protecting the Big Easy Takes a Big Project

Not all Big Projects are stunning, captivating marvels that we see. Some are rather non-descript, nearly invisible, yet they carry big responsibility.

Take the Big Easy – New Orleans. Here, one of these non-descript, nearly invisible Big Projects is all but completed. The duty of this project is to reduce risk for one of our nation’s most unique cities from devastating floods. And we all know why there was such an urgency to this Big Project. To this day, one word – and, ironically, a lovely name actually – still haunts that city: Katrina.

(Credit: Think Positive! Magazine)

A hurricane by that name flooded the city in 2005, causing more than 1,400 deaths in the Gulf Region and leveling countless homes and businesses. To this day, New Orleans and the surrounding region are still recovering from its effects.

But this Big Project is designed to prevent another Katrina-like disaster from happening again. It can’t prevent the hurricane, but it can prevent the damage a hurricane of that proportion causes. It’s called the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS).

Not a lovely name. Not an eye-opening tourist attraction. (The French Quarter won’t lose a dime of business to it.) But the HSDRRS – it’s equally non-lovely acronym – is a complex system of levees, floodgates and pump stations that has the all-important job of reducing risk to this one-of-a-kind American city from another massive hurricane.

HSDRRS’ price tag to build –  $14.6 billion dollars. Yet its value is hard to quantify. New Orleans lost half of its population to Katrina. The hurricane was the costliest natural disaster in the nation’s history. The Bush administration spent $105 billion on reconstruction. What’s the value to place on losing the Big Easy…potentially forever…to the country’s identity and creative spirit? The new hurricane  system is replacing the former one, which failed during Katrina. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built both the former and the most recent one.

New Orleans is not alone in needing a Big Project to prevent a natural disaster of this type. In the Netherlands, an improved levee system was fast-tracked in response to a flooding in 1953 that killed 1,800 people. The resulting infrastructure, the North Sea Protective Works, was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The new system in New Orleans goes well beyond the previous one and is being built to withstand a 100-year storm, which has a 1 percent chance of happening in a year.

The system was recently put to test when Hurricane Isaac, crawled through New Orleans. It succeeded. Isaac was a category 1 hurricane. Katrina hit New Orleans as a category 3 hurricane.

Today, we hear from René Poché, a public affairs official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, who explains to us the intensive outreach effort that went along with construction of the HSDRRS.

It was quite the challenge. An anxious population needed to be convinced that the new project would do what the old one failed to do: defend their city from future devastation.

– – –

After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina how did the Army Corps of Engineers form the plan for the Hurricane & Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS)? Where do you start on such a daunting task?
After Hurricane Katrina, firm Administration commitment and quick Congressional action enabled the Corps to advance this major investment in public safety and hurricane and storm damage risk reduction. The development, methodology and execution of the HSDRRS have applicability Corps-wide and shows what the Corps can do with full federal funding.

We relied on our non-federal partners to assist with real estate acquisition and on extensive collaboration with the general public. The effort by this team of federal, state, local governments, levee authorities, levee boards, academia, industry, peer reviewers, stakeholders and many more were vital to its completion.

The flooded 9th Ward area of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
(Credit: The New Orleans Times-Picayune)

The HSDRRS is extraordinary and intricate. What type of planning goes into designing and constructing such a complex system? Who were the team members and stakeholders involved?
The Corps could not have achieved the successful delivery of the system alone.  Many of these projects had never been constructed before and required out-of-the-box thinking and construction methods.  The use of the design-build method and early contractor involvement were critical in the construction of the HSDRRS.

The accomplishments of this team of federal, state, local governments, levee authorities, levee boards, academia, industry and many more is historic and unparalleled.

Can you explain the 100-year storm criteria that the HSDRRS has to meet?
A one-hundred-year flood is calculated to be the level of flood water expected to be equaled or exceeded every 100 years on average. The 100-year flood is more accurately referred to as the 1% annual exceedance probability flood, since it is a flood that has a 1% chance of being equaled or exceeded in any single year.

What a 100 year storm looks like

The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) Surge Barrier is one of the largest storm surge barriers of its kind in the world and the Army Corps of Engineer’s largest civil works design build construction project. Can you tell us more about the unique functions of this feature?
This is one of the largest surge barriers in the world. It is nearly two miles long and is a state-of-the-art Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier Project at Lake Borgne. It includes a concrete pile-supported wall across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and three gated structures. As the Corps’ largest-ever Design-Build civil works construction contract, it will reduce risk to the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, New Orleans East, Orleans Metro and St. Bernard parishes. The overall project is now 98% complete.

The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lock
(Credit: flickr user cmh2315fl)

The HSDRRS followed the NEPA process, which has specific requirements for public involvement. How was the public kept informed and how was their input collected and used on this project?
The Corps and its partners are at the forefront of all communications. We continue to coordinate and plan in concert with our stakeholders and partners. To date, more than 500 engagements have been held to inform/educate the public.  All comments oral and written became part of the record of every public engagement and all were given equal consideration.  Many comments did help us in refining the final projects.

Just seven years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was tested again as Hurricane Isaac moved though it this past August. How effective was the HSDRRS in protecting the city?
The Corps successfully operated the HSDRRS during Hurricane Isaac. It was the first real test of the system since construction was completed, and the system performed as designed.

A lot of public trust was lost after Hurricane Katrina. With the HSDRRS in place the area now has better protection then any time in history. Has public opinion changed with the construction of the HSDRRS?
Yes, public opinion has changed because we made the commitment to be open and transparent with our communications throughout construction of the system. But, public trust is something we continue to work on each day as we move to completion of the system. The adage “actions speak louder than words” has gone a long way to rebuild that trust.

A public meeting held by Team New Orleans, United States Army Corps of Engineers
(Credit: Team New Orleans, United States Army Corps of Engineers)

Has public involvement helped to re-build public trust? Is there still more work to do?
Let’s answer the second question first; there will always be work to do to effectively communicate the complexity of the HSDRRS and maintaining public trust never ends either.
Now to the first part, the short answer is yes.  Through our public engagements, we heard, unfiltered, what’s important to the community.  We took that input and applied it as much as possible when designing the system.  Now as we are transitioning back to our more traditional civil works missions, public input is just as vital.

 The Army Corps of Engineers is part of a multi-agency effort to restore the ecosystem and protect the South Louisiana’s coast. Can you explain how ecosystem restoration is also one line of defense against storm surge? How do you communicate this message to the public?
Wetland loss in coastal Louisiana has reached catastrophic proportions and as a result, important national resources are at risk. In recent decades, the coastal erosion rate exceeded 35-40 square miles a year. Due in part to management improvements, education efforts and protection and restoration activities, the annual loss rate has been reduced to approximately 16.5 square miles per year. However, coastal Louisiana is still threatened by sea-level rise, subsidence, (downward shift of the surface) salt-water intrusion, tropical events, hurricanes and human activities.

Protection and restoration of Louisiana’s coastal ecosystems requires collaboration and teamwork amongst local, state and federal agencies, stakeholders and the public.  To that end, the Corps engages our stakeholders, public and non-governmental organizations on a regular basis through meetings and workshops.

The South Louisiana Coast

Are there any special communications and public involvement issues to keep in mind when working with communities after a crisis or natural disaster?
Information is power and helps people make informed decisions. Even after Hurricane Isaac, we continue to engage the public as areas rebuild. In the next few months, we’ll go back to the public with the results of our post-storm modeling. We’ll present that information and solicit community input.  Communications and public involvement are never ending.

– – –
Thank you Mr. Poché for the detailed explanation about the Corps’ effort to defend the city of New Orleans. Here’s hoping that this Big Project lives up to its promise and the city remains an American treasure for years to come.

Mike Stetz,  Senior Writer
Collaborative Service, Inc.

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