The Napoleon House

Hurricane Katrina devastation - August 29, 2005

Roland strolled back to Napoleon House. He liked that bar. It got its name from Nicholas Girod, mayor of New Orleans from 1812-1815, who made his home available to Napoleon should he need a place to escape. The name stuck to this day. As Roland entered some guys recognized him and waved him on. Surprised he walked over. “You were here a few nights ago,” one of the guys said. 

“Yes, I was,” Roland replied, “how did you recognize me?” 

“You are not one of the locals here. Where are you from?”  Roland joined them as another guy pulled up a chair. 

“I’m from the Netherlands, on my way to visit my brother in California. I want to see how Katrina affected New Orleans and how it is now, five years later.”

“Hmm, the Netherlands hey, you have your own flooding problems there, don’t you? I am referring to the 1953 flood.”

“Wow, good memory! You know your history well.”

“I am Joe, by the way, that is Tom, Mark, and John.” 

“Nice to know you, I am Roland.”

Roland had traveled the area, observing the dikes, dams, and water management projects in the area. He noticed that a lot of the damage could have been prevented, and a bit of his Dutch pride about how water management is handled different in Holland, kicked in. He wondered why a lot of houses were built in marginally protected areas of the delta. He wondered if technology about water management was more advanced in Holland. He became more interested in the “why’s” of flooding, because he realized that American and Dutch technologically about water management were not that different. Engineers in both countries have a good idea of the conditions and risks that exist at any time. Didn’t they manage to not have such a high density populated and expensive businesses, in flood prone areas?

“Yeah, Katrina was a disaster,” Tom chimed in, “not something we are very proud of, the way it happened and how we responded.” Tom went on to explain how hurricanes are pretty common, but how the New Orleans city fathers cut corners when it comes to controlling disasters, which are inevitable. The levees are not very strong, just consisting of sand. The population assumes those levees will hold, and water flowing over them is limited and only will happen for a few hours at the peak of the hurricane, flooding some places, but those are manageable.  Height of the levees does not matter when they fail without water rising to their tops - like what happened in 2005. Floodplain mapping in the New Orleans area historically has been based on an assumption that the area was protected by the USACE-certified (US Corps of Engineers) levee system, which was developed over several decades beginning in the 1920’s. This assumption led to floodplain regulations that allowed building construction to occur at or below sea level with no accommodations made for the possibility of river- or coastal flooding. 

Flooding in most places within the river / flood wall protected area in and around New Orleans was due to breaches in levees and canals. Pump systems that would normally have removed floodwaters were non-operational due to inundation or from a loss of primary and backup power. In Metairie, flooding was caused by high water from Lake Pontchartrain surcharging the drainage system with pumps off. Local officials decided to evacuate pump personnel on August 28, before the storm hit, according to The Times Picayune, and first-hand accounts given by the New Orleans Flood Team.   

Early in the morning on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States. When the storm made landfall, it had a Category 3 rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale–it brought sustained winds of 100–140 miles per hour–and stretched some 400 miles across. The storm itself did a great deal of damage, but its aftermath was catastrophic. Levee breaches led to massive flooding, and many people charged that the federal government was slow to meet the needs of the people affected by the storm. Hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were displaced from their homes, and experts estimate that Katrina caused more than $100 billion in damage. What those many people failed to realize, is that their own laid-back attitude, and that of their city fathers, about hurricanes contributed to the situation. They had seen so many hurricanes that Katrina also would pass. 

New Orleans was at particular risk. Though about half the city actually lies above sea level, its average elevation is about six feet below sea level–and it is completely surrounded by water. Over the course of the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers had built a system of levees and seawalls to keep the city from flooding. The levees along the Mississippi River were strong and sturdy, but the ones built to hold back Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne and the waterlogged swamps and marshes to the city’s east and west were much less reliable. Even before the storm, officials worried that those levees, jerry-built atop sandy, porous, erodible soil, might not withstand a massive storm surge. Neighborhoods that sat below sea level, many of which housed the city’s poorest and most vulnerable people, were at great risk of flooding.  (from: HISTORY article, "New Orleans after 10 years.")

“So you have levees instead of dikes?” Roland asked. 

“Well, yea, so what is the difference?” Mark replied. 

“Levees are built where the water level is about the same as the adjoining land, but six feet below sea level? That would require a dike, which is much firmer, has a wider base and is constructed of various materials; not just sand,” Roland explained. 

“Are you a water engineer, or something?”

“Yes, I am a water engineer calculating dam constructions. I did that for the last section of the Delta Works in Holland after the 1953 flood, and for potassium extraction ponds along the Dead Sea in Israel.” 

Silence for a few moments, as they were impressed, then Mark continued: “So, why are the most expensive industries and heaviest population increases concentrated in the lowest part of the Netherlands?”  To that, Roland did not have an immediate answer…