Protecting New Orleans

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast. The storm season starts again this June--and every June. Can coastal communities ever be safeguarded?
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Immediately after Hurricane Katrina pummeled New Orleans last August, President George W. Bush and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declared that no one could have predicted such devastation. Yet scientists, engineers and Louisiana state politicians had warned for years that a Category 4 or 5 storm crossing the Gulf of Mexico from a certain direction would drown the region. In 1998 computer models at Louisiana State University simulated such a terrible inundation. That same year the state proposed a $14-billion plan to restore the delta's natural wetlands--which, by absorbing water, can help protect inland areas from sea surges. But Congress turned it down.

What is more, engineering firms, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is largely responsible for flood protection, had proposed constructing higher earthen levees as well as huge gates that could have prevented storm surges from pouring into inner-city canals and bursting their concrete flood walls. Indeed, documents show that various gates had been recommended as far back as 1968 and in each decade since.

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