Obama says Katrina strengthened the nation’s response to catastrophes

By Evan Lehmann | 08/28/2015 08:16 AM EDT

President Obama described New Orleans as a symbol of progress in the nation’s handling of natural catastrophes two days before Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary. But after spending billions of dollars to rebuild, some experts warn that government policies still lack the wherewithal to minimize the economic and social damage of large storms.

President Obama described New Orleans as a symbol of progress in the nation’s handling of natural catastrophes two days before Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary. But after spending billions of dollars to rebuild, some experts warn that government policies still lack the wherewithal to minimize the economic and social damage of large storms.

Speaking in the Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center located in the city’s Lower 9th Ward, Obama eulogized the victims of the Category 3 hurricane and confronted continuing racial and economic inequalities in perhaps the hardest-hit neighborhoods of New Orleans. He called it an "epic struggle" and pointed to the impacts of climate change as a rising threat.

Floodwaters reached more than 10 feet high in the 9th Ward after Katrina’s storm surge crashed through or over levees and walls ringing the city, much of which is below sea level. Obama lauded the construction of a $14.5 billion flood defense system of levees, gates and pumps erected after the storm. He said it symbolizes improved building standards.


"We learned lessons from Katrina," Obama said. "The whole federal government has gotten smarter at preventing and recovering from disasters."

The Army Corps of Engineers built the flood protection system to withstand a 100-year storm, a calculation used to depict the price of insurance in the National Flood Insurance Program. Unlike other projects, the corps engineered the system to protect against the 100-year storm 50 years in the future — in 2057.

That’s an improvement, because other levees are often designed to meet that level of storm the day they’re built, said Gerry Galloway, a retired brigadier general in the corps and an expert on levees. That means the strength of other systems is constantly declining. In New Orleans, sinking ground and rising oceans act in concert to raise sea levels by up to a half-inch annually.

"It’s a very solid levee," said Galloway, adding that the system will provide a "great deal" of protection against future hurricanes.

But more needs to be done to increase the city’s resilience, he added, including better drainage systems behind the levees, because large storms are bound to deposit standing water in those bowl-like areas. Other improvements include stronger building codes, elevating more homes and prohibiting construction in especially dangerous areas.

"New Orleans is much better off than it was before," Galloway said. "Will [the system] stop or eliminate any consequences from a Katrina or even larger hurricanes? The answer is no. There will still be consequences."

A bowl full of water, panic and misery

The Obama administration has taken steps to address the nation’s rising exposure to flood loss — and criticisms that the 100-year standard is insufficient. The United States suffered $260 billion in flood damage between 1980 and 2013, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Obama recently announced a federal flood risk management standard that requires agencies to bolster the designs of public infrastructure. A common solution is to add 2 or 3 feet of elevation for things like roads and bridges.

Katrina provides potent images to support Obama’s narrative about inequality. His administration has said in recent months that natural hazards and climate change disproportionately affect poor people who live in areas that are less desirable and more dangerous.

The 9th Ward is one of them. It’s a bowl of low land surrounded by more affluent areas that are above sea level. The 9th Ward is as much as 15 feet below sea level in some areas, and it’s surrounded by levees and ridges that fence it off from Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south.

When Katrina’s storm surge, estimated in some places to be as high as 19 feet, overtopped or broke the barriers, it raced into the low-lying bowl of the city. Its depth and speed were sharpened by the contours of the 9th Ward, and they contributed to the death rate, according to some post-event analyses. Floodwaters were as deep as 12 feet in the 9th Ward and some other areas of the city, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It took up to three weeks to drain the area.

"Making our communities more resilient is going to be increasingly important," Obama said yesterday, "because we’re going to see more extreme weather events as the result of climate change. Deeper droughts, deadlier wildfires, stronger storms. That’s why, in addition to things like new and better levees, we’ve also been investing in restoring wetlands and other natural systems that are just as critical for storm protection."

About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded during Katrina, though water depths varied widely. About 70 percent of the city’s residential structures were damaged, amounting to roughly 134,000 housing units. Scores of schools were inundated, and the region’s roads and highways were damaged.

The storm altogether caused about $150 billion in economic losses, and Congress responded in late 2005 by approving $62.6 billion for emergency response and recovery. Much of that went to New Orleans, including more than $11 billion to rebuild public infrastructure like schools and wastewater treatment systems.

Obama ‘hijacked’ the anniversary?

A report released this week by the Georgetown Climate Center says Katrina sparked new efforts to build in stronger ways that could buttress the city against future cataclysms. But it’s not all good news. Limitations within the federal government and clumsy requirements in laws overseeing emergency funding are preventing cities from going further.

After Katrina, Congress made key improvements to disaster funding. It removed language that encouraged communities to rebuild facilities to the same standards that allowed them to be damaged in the first place. And cities can now lump numerous schools or road projects together, helping them interconnect their assets when rebuilding. Before, each project had to be constructed independently.

But obstacles to resilience remain, the Georgetown report says.

So-called green infrastructure to reduce flooding, like permeable surfaces and designing some areas to flood in order to slow runoff, is considered one way to reduce subsidence and limit damage from flooding.

But federal policies tend to favor hardened infrastructure. Funding for stormwater systems requires that the project results in at least $1 of benefits, or avoided losses, for each dollar invested. But the Georgetown report says that federal policies underestimate the benefits of green infrastructure by failing to capture the value of reduced subsidence or improved water quality.

"Absent further reform, these obstacles will continue to bedevil efforts to rebuild communities more sustainably in the wake of future disasters," the report says.

Republicans accused Obama yesterday of using the storm’s anniversary as a political prop to advance his liberal policies on climate change. They criticized him for infusing a solemn event with the ideological narrative of rising temperatures.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called Obama arrogant for inherently "demonizing" the oil and gas industry, a cornerstone of the Gulf Coast’s economy.

Obama has "hijacked the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in order to prop up his propagandist climate creed," Bishop said in a statement.

Others say the government needs to do more to portray the risks of climate change.

Edward Richards, a law professor at Louisiana State University who teaches classes about global warming, suggests that the new levees provide a false sense of security. That is encouraging new development in areas that are often below sea level and setting the city up for increased damage in the future, he said.

"The new levees have created this mythology that everything is safe," Richards said. "You need to depopulate these places if you believe in climate change."