On the Future of New Orleans
When the Big Muddy met the Big Easy by the Shore
The people of south Louisiana are grappling with a true existential threat. The land is moving south towards the Gulf and sinking as it goes. Sea levels are rising and storm intensity is increasing. South Louisiana will be abandoned at some point, we just can’t say when.
As many people have pointed out. New Orleans (and other parts of South Louisiana) are protected by a series of levees, pumps and diversions. The problem is one of surrounding structures and existing infrastructure. It will take a lot to overwhelm the protective systems around New Orleans. Sadly, the Gulf and the Mississippi have a whole lot of water and kinetic energy to throw at the system.
One of the main problems with determining threat levels and likely outcomes is the complexity of the systems. The Gulf is driven north into the marshes or it rips at the barrier islands from the rear in wintertime. Efforts to divert water and prevent storm surge in one area alter the safety calculations in another. Major diversion and land building projects thrive in unexpected areas and slip below the waves in areas we dearly needed them. Geology and faults effect the rate of subsidence as does levee building. Levees have the perverse effect of making the land within them sink as the leveed land drains, dries, and compacts.
The savage hydrology of the Gulf and the biblical problems associated with building one’s house on mud are a hugely complex component, but this is compounded New Orleans location near the mouth of the Mississippi. In essence, the city is located at the end of a fire hose. Whereas we once relied on the spring flood to bring nutrient rich soil to the Delta and keep its level above the sea, we now cower behind walls and berms as the river flows by at a rate that would make Niagara Falls jealous and dearly hope no barge breaks lose along a portion of occupied riverfront and knocks a hole in the levee or flood wall. Or, that the sand boils and crevasses don’t carry away the barriers that keep us dry.
Layer on top of this the fact that New Orleans, marked on maps as “Isle of New Orleans” for much of its life is, in fact, an island. The MRGO destroyed the protective marsh east of the city. It is totally gone, nothing worth mentioning remains. Lake Pontchartrain, to the city’s north, remains fairly unthreatening, though it isn’t without issues caused by run-off flooding via the rivers than flow into Lake Maurepas in the north. Occasionally, the Bonne Carré spillway is used to shunt 250,000 square feet per second of water across the northwestern portion of the city. In effect, turning a pastureland into a river carrying a larger volume of water than most other rivers one could name in the Untied States.
Across the river form New Orleans, at a spot about 20 miles above the city, is the primary nuclear power plant for the region. It is surrounded by levees but it’s post-Fukushima threat assessment (available via the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website, along with many other relevant documents) presents several situations which could be problematic. In brief, the levees are built to withstand various benchmarks, often referred to as some variation of “design flood.” Waterford 3, Entergy’s nuclear reactor there, stores three decades of spent nuclear fuel in a storage pit 54ft below sea level on the site. All of this is within the standard design requirements, however the back marsh that stretched for miles between Waterford 3 and Lake Salvador and, from there, into the Gulf, is badly eroded, sunken or otherwise insulted. Add to this the delicate situation an infrequent, unpredictable, but nonetheless certain, “Design Flood” poses to Waterford 3 and one might consider this power station as the most likely place for things to go really wrong.
All of these systems should hold up to a decent storm or a decent flood if they were to happen today or tomorrow. But, as these systems break down, and they are breaking down, the threat magnifies, even if it isn’t clear where that threat comes from exactly.
Louisiana has been in a budget crisis for several years and things are falling through the cracks. At this point, it is mainly cracks. Also, as greater insults are thrown at the system in the form of high water, stronger storms, lower land and greater river volume, it becomes hard to image how New Orleans remains viable over time. How long that will take is impossible to say, but present circumstances present a real existential threat to New Orleans and the nation. Recall that fully 30% of Americans energy needs and an even bigger portion of its petrochemical processing is done here. Much of American shipping uses the Mississippi River in some fashion and curbs to its usefulness caused by climate disruption will have huge knock on effects.
Lastly, there is the position of the government of the state and nation as regard the threats faced by New Orleans and the rest of south Louisiana. Much of the rural areas of south-east Louisiana are already gone, for all intents and purposes. Several of our parishes like St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary are already substantially drowned. In some cases +70% of those parishes are now underwater at different times of the year or have simply reverted to open water.
It is hard to imagine the urban places, safe behind levees and drained for generations, flooded by the Gulf. Although, New Orleans, it hardly bares pointing out, has seen this before. And, not just during Katrina. Betsy did her best to drown the city as well.
The issue, as I estimate it, arises from a misunderstanding of how humans do things. New Orleans, like any city, is a collection of resources built and maintained over the course of generations. It takes a lot of time, money and work to built a city. An ancient (by American standards) city, like New Orleans, contains even more resources and is particularly rich in culturally valued places and assets. In short, there is no reason to leave unless you absolutely have to. It doesn’t make much sense to abandon all that accumulated value unless you’re doing it at the front of a twenty-foot wall of water (Katrina brought in 21ft in places). There is just too much water pipe and fiber optic cable in the ground, too much money invested in streets, too many housing units, warehouses, churches, places of the dead and post offices. It would be crazy, truly crazy, to abandon that until people are forced to leave it.
As a result of our desire to preserve accumulated assets, we have decided to subsidize these risks in three major forms. One, insurance for homes, business and property in vulnerable areas is subsidized by the Federal government. This is as it should be, but it has the effect of creating an artificial level of risk tolerance that the insurance industry would not support with those subsidies. This creates a complex problem referred to broadly as “moral hazard.” In short, moral hazard is something that encourages individuals or firms to take a higher risk than they normally would because the threat of failure is offset by public funds in some way, like subsidies for insurance. Second, the tax and incentive structure of the state of Louisiana has been focused on the oil and gas industry. Thus, a different sort of moral hazard has occurred where extractive industry is encouraged to build shockingly expensive infrastructure, largely on the public nickel though pro-industry incentives, right on the edge of the least stable land in the United States. Rather than encourage a diverse economy, Louisiana has cultivated the oil industry, leading to all manner of structural economic issues but also imperiling its future from a design/built standpoint. The third manner of subsidy or moral hazard creation was the total stand-down of Louisiana’s regulatory structure. The oil patch motto “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” became the accepted model for the industry and the state allowed it to happen by refusing to enforce laws that threatened profits for political allies and powerful constituencies.
Five feet of sea level rise, a realistic amount given the current thinking on global climate change and what we know about subsidence, would make the city untenable. With five feet of sea level rise, the Mississippi meets the Gulf at a spot very near New Orleans. This is not hydrologically possible. A city, even a city of high walls and powerful pumps, cannot endure the simultaneous pressures of a raging Gulf and river that carries a greater volume of water every year.
But all of this gets to the original question, will New Orleans be abandoned within the next five years? Almost certainly not.
The issue here is misunderstanding the way people respond to a future threat. New Orleans is unsustainable over time, but it works just fine right now. There is no reason to let The Fly become chocked with weeds or to shutter the clubs of Frenchman Street because they will be under water one day. In some respects it is worth noting that lots of things will be under water one day, Nola will just get their sooner. This really sucks, but it true.
Sadly, this unconscious knowledge, poorly explained by government and masked by the city’s natural exuberance, is already killing New Orleans. The economy there is structurally unreliable. Beyond the vicissitudes of an economy hinged to the commodity price of oil, it is difficult for a company with international or even regional aspirations to look at New Orleans as good place to base services. It is a certainty that businesses in New Orleans will not be able to fulfill their customers needs from time to time because of the weather and the river. Not many firms will voluntarily set up in a place that puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Why base your firm there when you can go east, west or north and avoid those existential threats? Many simply wont take the risk. One could argue this makes infrastructure development at the governmental level problematic as well.
At present, there is discussion about putting a commuter rail line in between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. At some point people will raise the real concern that maybe steel rails and elevated sidings might not be the best way to spend money in a flood plain. It sounds ridiculous now, but hydrofoils would be much more practical.
The one real benefit of all this vulnerability is that New Orleans and the rest of south Louisiana will be the laboratory for discovering the best (and worst) ways for a modern economy to adjust to climate change. It is a fascinating thing to think about, but no city, state, or people can be expected to embrace their roll as guinea pigs.
Credit: Thanks to Joshua Nee and Mike Redaelli for applying their design skills to some of the photos in this article. Original images by me.