Hurricane Katrina

Former Army Corps Gen. Gerald Galloway calls for national flood plan

After Mississippi River flooding decimated the Midwest in 1993, a panel of leading water experts called for changes to federal disaster response efforts. But the lead author of that report, Gerald Galloway, says the panel's recommendations were largely ignored, setting the stage for the destruction in New Orleans. Galloway, a professor at the University of Maryland who served as brigadier general with the Army Corps of Engineers, says a national flood policy is long overdue. He also explains why the United States should implement the type of flood prevention strategies used in the Netherlands and Japan.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Gerry Galloway, former brigadier general with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and currently a professor with the University of Maryland. Mr. Galloway thanks a lot for being here.

Gerald Galloway: My pleasure Brian.

Brian Stempeck: I want to start right off with the story we saw today in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. A number of hurricane experts in New Orleans are saying that the flooding in New Orleans may have been due to a failure of the levees that was basically the fault of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and not really the storm itself. What's your reaction to that?

Gerald Galloway: Well, first of all, expert is an overused word and there are lots of aspects to that particular issue. What happened in New Orleans will require more than one discipline and more than one group of people to look at it. I know that the Corps of Engineers federal government is committed to a fine forensic analysis, detailed forensic analysis, to go in and find out what happened. But it's going to take awhile to do that and as you could well recognize that many of the challenges will be locating the material that was on the site at the time of the failure of the levees. Much of that was washed away, a huge gap was put through the region and on top of that are all the materials that were put there to stop the levee breach.

Brian Stempeck: The blame game has really already started Washington. Do you have a sense yet of where the blame might lie or is it too early to say?

Gerald Galloway: I think it's too early to say and part of it is not necessarily blame or a fault it's a decision made by rational individuals balancing many factors together and they make judgments as to, in this case, how much protection to provide the city of New Orleans.

Brian Stempeck: Now you're also a member of the Mississippi River Commission. You were the author of a major report from 30 water experts back after the floods in Mississippi in the mid '90s. It was a major report and there were a lot of findings. I know you've said in the press a lot of those findings about how to deal with flood areas were ignored. Give us a sense of what you found in that report and what people listened to and what people didn't.

Gerald Galloway: Well I think that the first point we made to the president was that people are at risk in this country from flooding. We tend to push it aside because there's so many other things in the news, but we have people in the 20,000 flood prone communities in this country that are at risk every day. In some parts, small parts of some cities, the entire city in the case of New Orleans, is at risk or can be affected by the flooding that takes place. So we said there is a problem. Two, it's not going to get any better. Flooding is a natural event. Floods occur because we have a lot of rainfall and everything we know about climate change, everything we know about the changes in upstream development, causes more water to go down the stream, we're going to see an increase in probably floods and then obviously the challenge is preventing flood damages. So we're going to continue to see large floods. That's a natural event. The next thing we told the president was if you are going to have that condition you have to do one of three things. You have to move the people out of the floods way and that doesn't work for a New Orleans or a St. Louis or Omaha, the big cities. Then if you don't want to do that what you need to do is provide them an adequate degree of protection. And we have let, over the years, since the 1936 Flood Control Act when the federal government really became involved in providing flood protection, we've let the level of protection go down and down and down, because what we've tried to do is find that very fine line where well the economic benefits of this project outweigh the costs of building this levee. And at this point we'll stop doing it. Whereas in 1936 we might have built a levee against a 1,000-year flood, now we're building them against hundred year floods. And that level of protection was something we said, Mr. President, you ought to, and the administration ought to look at, go to a minimum of 500 years for developed areas, a population ...

Brian Stempeck: Isn't that a bit, it seems like in New Orleans it could withstand a Category 3 hurricane, is what people were saying. Was that, the advice from that report, was that ignored?

Gerald Galloway: In the sense that there was not a wholesale law put through or some sort of federal edict that we should have only 500 year or higher levees, yes. And that's a problem. One of the recommendations we made is that we are absent a flood policy in this country. The 1936 act says it's the business of the federal government to deal with floods, but we haven't really said now, in the more modern times, what that means. For example, if you go to the Netherlands they have a national policy that says if you are on the coast we're going to provide 1-in-10,000 year protection. If you're on the Rhine River, a completely different set of circumstances, less like the hurricane, New Orleans is comparable to the 10,000 year protection, but on a river its 1 over 1250, a vast difference. But that's national policy. It's the same thing in Japan. They have a 1 in 10,000 level of protection for people who are on the coastal areas, as a national policy. We don't have that national policy, so we pick and choose each and every time a project is justified.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think now we're going to see Congress try to develop a national policy? I mean we've heard a lot of talk about these programs in the Netherlands and in Japan. Do you think the United States is now going to try to model itself after those countries?

Gerald Galloway: I would hope so. I've had some conversations with people on the Hill that indicate that they could move in that direction. I think it's important that we have the nation deal with this and I say the nation because flood control, flood damage reduction, is not just the responsibility of the federal government. The federal government is one of the actors, but the state governments have a very large role, the regional governments have a large role and the communities in which the flooding is going to occur have the greatest role. They have to be there on the ground. They have to decide what's the best use of their land? And they have to be a participant not only in the cost sharing of some of the flood damage reduction projects, but also in controlling the use of the land that's subject to flooding.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think that's really going to happen though? I mean after the floods on the Mississippi River in the mid 90s, we didn't see, we had your report come out and we didn't see, as you said, much of a change. What's going to be different this time around?

Gerald Galloway: Well I think that the subtle part of this is after the '94 report that we put out one example was 27 mayors signed a petition saying we are going to go in this direction. We need the state and the federal government to help us do some tough things. We need to have a balance between structural, building higher levees and flood walls, and nonstructural, evacuating areas that are most at risk in the floodplain. Why should you rebuild a house that's been flooded three or four or five times? It doesn't make sense. I think the Washington Post today had an editorial dealing with this flood insurance. We have to address it in the whole. After the '93 Mississippi floods many communities did take action, but we didn't do it on a national basis. What's the most interesting thing about floods, the half life of that memory of the flood is very, very short and so people have forgotten about it. They've gone on to some other crises.

Brian Stempeck: I was going ask about that. I mean it seems like in a lot of situations, in the Netherlands and in Japan, it seems like engineers are looking for a technological solution, trying to build the highest levees they can and protect against these massive floods. But aren't there some areas where there's just nothing you can do and it's time to say no further development in these areas? Say, a lot of the houses that we continually see flooded on the Outer Banks of North Carolina?

Gerald Galloway: Yes, very clearly there are places where it's not going to make sense to rebuild or if you do rebuild you have to elevate the homes. And then when you're in a hurricane zone that gives you a double problem, because you can be blown off your foundations. So yes, there are some places that should evacuate, but it is not a call, the report that we did, was not a call for evacuation of the floodplain. It was not a call to move people out of New Orleans, but to build sensibly. The challenge now, when we go back into New Orleans, is there are some areas of New Orleans, like the French Quarter and the market district, that are on the natural levy. They're higher ground. That's not the challenge. The challenge is in the areas that are really below sea level and at a very low elevation. How should we redo those areas? The Japanese have taken to doing such things as super levees. They've really extended the levy into a living area, so it becomes a lot more expensive, but once you're at that higher elevation you're certainly better protected.

Brian Stempeck: What advice do you have as federal and state officials try and rebuild New Orleans? What roles and, what do they need to improve this time around?

Gerald Galloway: Well I think that they need to take a systems approach as they deal with this particular challenge. We need to look at what we as a nation can do to provide flood protection for the city of New Orleans. What level of protection is right? I happen to believe it's the largest storm that we can reasonably protect against, the category five storms. But to recognize that that levy, just like in the Netherlands, the levy is only one part of the plan. In New Orleans, the other part of that plan is to take care of the Louisiana coastal restoration. That swamp land, the marsh land between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, provides a barrier. It's a very precious ecosystem, but from the flood control standpoint it provides a barrier against that hurricane moving in and the force of that hurricane is dampened and the surge is reduced by having those wetlands out there. And as we lose parts of the wetlands, thousands of acres every year, we've got to do something to stop that. And there are plans underway, as part of the total process, to deal with that issue of the restoration of the coast of Louisiana. And it's interesting, when you look at the coast of Louisiana restoration project, it's supported by ecologists. It's supported by engineers. It's supported by developers, because they recognize it's critical to have that barrier to protect the city of New Orleans, but the oil and gas industry, the fishing industry, we're going to lose something that's very precious to this country if we don't do that. So I guess my answer is we'll take, I think the nation will take a balanced approach. It will take the federal government, it will take the local government, it's going to take money. The Louisiana coastal restoration is 14 or $15,000,000,000.

Brian Stempeck: I was going to ask about that. I mean we had the former Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, on our show last week and his point was that as you rebuild New Orleans there's no point to try and restore some of these coastal areas. That it's simply too late. If you're talking about rising sea levels from global warming and the damage that's already been done, it might be too late to save those ecosystems. Do you think that's, is he being too critical?

Gerald Galloway: I think he's being too critical. Again, not knowing exactly the context, but the people that I've dealt with in Louisiana, who are ecologists and engineers and biologists who deal with all aspects of that, there are things we can do. As a matter of fact, the government started 15 years ago to build structures inside the levees to allow, during certain periods at the year, water to come from the Mississippi River through the levy into the marsh lands to rejuvenate, to bring the sediment that's been held away by the levees onto the land to help rebuild, to prevent saltwater intrusion and to restore a more natural ecosystem. The people that are looking at this have looked at what's done in the Everglades, have looked at what's done in the Danube marshes. There are things that can be done. Will we be 100% successful? Well, when you say restoration, restore to what? That's always the challenge, but I think there's a definite need to move forward to protect what we have and, if possible, restore what we had in some form.

Brian Stempeck: Besides just providing more money for the Army Corps of Engineers, what do you see as the role of Congress right now? They're talking about reconstruction. They're talking about billions of dollars in aid packages, but as you take a broader perspective, looking at some of the other cities that you mentioned, they're going to face the same problems as New Orleans, what should Congress be doing right now?

Gerald Galloway: Congress should be focusing on a vision. It should be focusing on policy. The administration, together with the Congress and with the states, ought to shape a policy that says this is how we as a nation are going to deal with floods. To go out and spend money without understanding the ultimate objective is rather foolish. To say such things as we are going to provide for urban areas a high level of protection. We are going to do it in a balanced way that brings structural and nonstructural together. We're going to consider the ecology. We're going to protect the environment as we move forward, but we have a vision that our citizens will be free of the flood threat, as well as we can, in 20 or 25 years. That's why the Netherlands, after their big flood in 1953, were able to move ahead. The people in the Netherlands got behind a policy that says no more big floods like this.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think the White House and Congress, do you think they're going to do that?

Gerald Galloway: I hope so. I see, for the first time, the Mississippi flood was a disaster. There is no question about it. We had farms under water for 3, 4, 5 months. We saw families moved, thousands of families moved off their land, families breaking up. But we've never seen, this current generation, the generations that are alive today, have never seen what we saw in New Orleans. It happened in 1927 on the Mississippi and they had people living on the levees and thousands were killed. Now we're seeing what the impacts can be and if I were living in Sacramento I would be very concerned. I saw what happened in New Orleans and Sacramento has far less protection than New Orleans does. I would be concerned if I lived there. And if I lived in any of the major metropolitan areas where a portion of the city was at risk I'd be out checking to see what I really have. So I think there's going to be pressure from all over the country to deal with this. I see it being debated in the Legislature in Sacramento. I hear about it in other states and it is very clear that there's going to be attention given to it this time.

Brian Stempeck: All right Gerry, we're out of time. We're going to stop there. I'd like to thank our guest today, that was Gerry Galloway of the University of Maryland. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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