New Orleans levees a product of politics, not pragmatism

By Rob Ross

It seems that neither hell nor high water can turn the Army Corps of Engineers from their strategy of overcoming nature with man-made barriers. John Schwartz reported in the New York Times two weeks ago that the Corps has completed a $14.5 billion civil works project designed to protect the city of New Orleans from coastal flooding. In it, Schwartz takes an uncritical, almost laudatory view of the new flood control system. The reader is left with the impression that Katrina made Congress finally recognize the need for a fully funded federal initiative in New Orleans, and the Corps was given the money and freedom it needed to build magnificent defenses for the city. At no point does Schwartz entertain the alternative approach to reducing flood risk: allow flooding.

From a very early point in our countries’ history, taming the Mississippi and its delta region has been as much a political project as a scientific one. At first, free and open navigation and commerce along the river was the primary focus. Indeed, in 1807 Thomas Jefferson used the power of the presidency to illegally override a Louisiana state court decision regarding the banks of the Mississippi. By the mid nineteenth century, however, flood control became the main focus. In an op-ed published in 1862, the New York Times wrote.

For the attainment of [flood control] it projects a gigantic series of works, which were under way when the madness of secession put an end to them; but which will probably be resumed by the National Government when those States (for which the issues of life and death hang upon such protection) shall have come back to their allegiance. All will welcome the day when we can return to this time-honored policy, and when our engineers shall again descend the Mississippi charged with no more hostile errand than the duty of completing the work of protection, by building that magnificent system of levees which the Delta Report projects. There is one truth, however, which the Report conclusively proves; it is a physical impossibility for the Valley of the Mississippi ever to be politically divided. The Power which rules at its source must hold the channel, the Delta and the mouths. The enormous lines of continuous embankment necessary for the protection of its population can be built and owned only by one Nation. (emphasis added)1

At its heart, the effort to control flooding along the Mississippi is as much an issue of federal power and national unity as it is of practical focus.

Flooding in the Mississippi has even made and unmade US presidents.  In 1927 the Mississippi region saw one of the worst natural disasters in US. More than a half a million people we left homeless by floods that covered thousands of acres of farmland. Though flooding is not a Department of Commerce issue, President Calvin Coolidge sent then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as his personal representative to oversee relief efforts. In the New York Times’ 1927 coverage of Hoover’s visit, he is quoted as saying “The problem of reconstruction is all important. Its economic importance to the State is second only to that of the individual himself. As fast as the waters receded we want these farmers and their families to return to the farms – with the least possible delay.” Hoover’s work 2 in aid relief contributed to his notoriety and his subsequent election as President. Much later in history, President George Bush Jr. would face serious criticism for his apparent lack of action or interest after another devastating flood covered New Orleans.

At the local end, landowners, developers and businessmen use the opportunity of federal flood control money to enrich themselves. Under the guise of flood control, local political powers drain, clear and encircle with levees and flood walls land that, without the aid of millions of dollars of federal money, would have remained swampland. These lands are then developed and sold off to individuals with the full guarantee against flooding given by the US government. In his work on floodplain development in the US, Gilbert White wrote that “it would seem desirable to recognize that, under current policy, the Corps of engineers is, against its inclinations, one of the major real estate developers in the country. The effect of its operations on more than 650 urban flood plains is to stimulate and support occupance changes which are already in progress [emphasis added] 3” In other words, the effect of the Corps flood control projects is to increase the value of floodplain land and speed their development and occupation by residents, farmers and businesses.  Private landowners and speculators pocket the resulting profits.

The disaster of Katrina dramatically illuminated this problematic phenomenon. In fact, that hurricane was not the first major storm to strike New Orleans. Almost exactly 40 years before, near-category five Hurricane Betsy topped the levees and flooded the city in much the same way Katrina did. Comparing the damage from these two storms tells us a lot about the effect of floodplain development. Betsy killed 74 people and did 10 billion real dollars in damages. The Corps embarked on a multi-billion dollar flood control project that encouraged more people to build and live below sea level, and when Katrina hit, the damage was magnified almost ten-fold.

The alternative to man-made flood control barriers to limit flood risk is to leave low-lying land undeveloped as a natural barrier to flooding. This strategy first began to gain traction in the 1970s. A 1973 New York Times article reports that “new forces have joined conservationists in the running debate over the nation’s multibillion dollar flood control program. Hydrologists, community planners and Federal study groups are increasingly calling for less emphasis on man-made control structures and more reliance on strong zoning laws that limit settlement – and therefore damage – flood prone areas 4.” This idea gained momentum through the late 1990s as conservationists began to gain traction in Washington. A 2002 New York Times article notes that “perhaps the surest protection is building up the coastal marshes that lie between New Orleans and the sea and that have been eroding at high rates. But restoration will require time, a huge effort and prohibitive sums of money, perhaps $14 billion, according to a study by a panel from federal and state agencies, universities and business.” Unfortunately, the political climate swung back towards big government during the 2000s, and the idea of restoring natural flood barriers has fallen out of favor. Notice, however, that the $14 billion price tag is less than the cost of the current system Schwartz is so enthralled with.

The fact is that the current program of built flood control is a product of politics, not pragmatism. The Corps 150 year old effort to control the Mississippi region’s flooding appeals to a basic sense of nationalism and federal exceptionalism. It is supported by local speculators looking to make money off Congressional largesse and, last week, the New York Times, because the paper’s editors see New Orleans’ levees as a shining example of effective government action. Schwartz quotes a senior project manager with the Corps as saying “it feels terrible to say, but it takes a disaster to get that kind of funding.” The message is clear; it takes a Hurricane, or perhaps a financial meltdown, for the government to take the action it should have taken decades ago. But at the center of it lies the elephant nobody wants to see: if the system is not 100% foolproof, then it will fail at some point. When it fails, will the resulting damage be to Katrina’s as Katrina’s was to Betsy’s? Are those costs outweighed by the gains of populating New Orleans’ floodplains?      Schwartz and the New York Times have made New Orleans a poster child for federal initiative. Let’s hope it doesn’t again become victim of federal failure.

About the Author: Rob Ross is a graduate student in economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of “Preventing Disaster: A Georgist Perspective on Flood Control in New Orleans.”

1. “Secession and the levees of the Mississippi.” The New York Times. June 7, 1862.

2. Speers, L. C. “Hoovers Own Picture of the Flood Tragedy.” The New York Times. 1927.

3. White, Gilbert F., Wesley C. Calef, James W. Hudson, Harold M. Mayer, John R. Sheaffer and Donald J. Volk. Changes in Urban Occupance of Flood Plains in the US. Chicago: University of Chicago Department of Geography. Research Paper No. 57. 1958.

4. Ayres Jr., B. Drummond. “Flood Experts Call for Curbs on Development in Low Lying Areas.” The New York Times. May 26, 1973.

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