Levees and spillways have long been part of the Louisiana landscape, but Katrina and Rita put them on the map
Levees in Louisiana, besides keeping us dry, provide some welcome elevation for low-lying areas and have added cultural benefits. As teenagers in the ’50s knew, you could “drive your Chevy to the levee,” as heard in the 1971 song “American Pie,” and besides some romantic privacy, you had the benefit of better radio reception. Up and down the Mississippi River, the 1950s late-night airwaves bounced, maybe with “Moonglow with Martin,” a cool jazz show on WWL-AM out of New Orleans, or with the hot rhythm-and-blues disks spun by deejay Gene Nobles on WLAC-AM out of Nashville, Tenn.
Louisiana wears her levees gracefully, like so many strands of Mardi Gras beads. This makes an asset of a necessity. Geographers would point out that Louisiana has a great “situation” on a major trade route. The river that traverses the nation’s heartland winds through the state on its way to the gulf. But Louisiana has a dreadful “site” – low-lying, marshy, surrounded and criss-crossed by water. Levees make living in Louisiana possible.
According to the Association of Levee Boards of Louisiana, representing 23 levee districts, more than half our state lies in a flood plain. Those who live here have long accommodated themselves to that fact.
Consider the weather-conscious design of the typical Louisiana French colonial plantation home. The long, sloping roof covers the galleries and shades the shuttered openings from direct sun. And the main living area is reached by a long stairway to the second floor. The first floor, with thick plastered walls, is used mainly for storage – for the simple reason that if the water rose, goods could be easily moved and little harm would be done. These homes were built by people who knew enough to expect the worst that nature could offer. Regular flooding was a fact of life.
By 1722, French engineer Le Blond de la Tour was writing back to France that he had found a remedy to the four-year-old city of New Orleans’s threat of river flood: building a “good dike of earth” along the riverfront. And so the first of many attempts to protect the land and people from rising water was made. While government funds might be used to protect cities, in the outlying areas individual landowners were charged with levee construction and maintenance. Predictably, this was an imperfect system.
FINDING A WAY
Louisiana’s terrain has been the stage for an ever-changing performance of waters. The Mississippi River for eons has sent out tentacles, trying out different routes, and each of those stream beds holds water still – the Atchafalaya, Bayou Lafourche and any number of other waterways once marked the path of the Mississippi. Regular spring floods spilled over the banks, dropping sediment and creating rich soil. As the new soil built up near the coast, the marsh and swamp grew. Shifting sands from the ocean floor joined, barrier islands formed. Half-land, half-water, this spongy, fertile mat protected and absorbed the impact of fierce storms that forged inland. A wonderful organic machine, the region was vibrant with living things, plants, trees, all marine creatures, animals. The only creature that could not thrive in this environment was the civilized human. People today want dry, dependable land and protection from nature’s wrath. Only technology could make it so.
After the Louisiana Purchase, the problems of the state became a federal worry. The U.S. Army concerned itself first with protective forts on waterways (the Battle of New Orleans provoked this) and, in 1824, the Army was additionally charged with improving navigation on rivers. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point was the nation’s primary engineering school in those years; the idea of the Army overseeing water-engineering projects made sense. Meeting the costs of levees and flood protection became the problem.
In 1849, floods plagued the Mississippi River Valley. The flood in New Orleans from a crevasse filled the city with water for six weeks, in a flooding pattern eerily similar to that of Hurricane Katrina. In response, Congress enacted the Swamp and Overflow Land Act of 1850. Louisiana was given 8.5 million acres of swampland. The rationale was that the state would sell the land and use the proceeds for levees and flood control. The system did not work; little money was available. Although the state began forming levee districts, covering most of the Mississippi River areas by 1898, it was only in 1879 with the formation of the Mississippi River Commission that flood-control work began in earnest. In 1874, when James B. Eads proved with his jetties that the Mississippi could scour its own path to the gulf, serious attention was given to looking for scientific ways to deal with the river. The Mississippi River Commission, still with five members and headed by an engineer from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has charge of river flood-control projects. Today, the Corps in Louisiana also oversees hurricane-protection projects in the New Orleans area.
TAMING THE WATER
Flood control as we know it dates from after the 1927 Mississippi River flood, when water covered 26,000 square miles of America. Louisiana was devastated. Only by dynamiting a levee in St. Bernard Parish was New Orleans saved from destruction (and only decades later would St. Bernard landowners be compensated for their loss). Congress authorized $300 million – more than had been spent on levees in history – for Mississippi River flood control.
Imagine Louisiana rivers as veins standing out on the back of your hand. The water level, higher than the land, must be contained. Flood control is accomplished not only by rimming rivers with levees, but by providing outlets for high water other than the stream bed. The Bonnet Carre Spillway, opened in 1950, can divert Mississippi River water to Lake Pontchartrain. The Morganza Spillway performs the same service for the Atchafalaya. And at the Old River Control Structure, the Atchafalaya can carefully be prevented from capturing the Mississippi but is still used to help control high water.
Add to that the need for protection levees, shielding inhabited areas from storm surges rising from the gulf, and for levee-like walls along canals (failure of walls on the London Avenue and 17th Street drainage canals in New Orleans, along with the overtopping of the Industrial Canal walls and their inadequate patching, were the causes of the Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita floods in New Orleans).
The design and construction of the entire system is overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the state of Louisiana and the levee board districts throughout the state share in responsibilities.
FEDERAL OR NOT
Ed Preau serves as the assistant secretary for public works and intermodal transportation at the Louisiana Department of Transportation, and he also is the secretary of the Association of Levee Boards of Louisiana.
Preau explains that levees fall into two categories. “The federal levee system includes the Mississippi River, the Red River, Ouachita and Black rivers”; the federal system also includes hurricane-protection levees in the New Orleans area. Other levees are not in the federal system but are still subject to federal supervision.
“The Corps, even for the federal levees, requires that there be a non-federal sponsor to own and maintain the levee. The non-federal sponsor is also expected to share in the costs,” Preau said. And not all levees are under the jurisdiction of levee boards: “Usually the non-federal sponsor is a levee district, but occasionally there will be a city or a drainage district that will be the sponsor.”
For non-federal levees, “the only time the Corps might come in to do operation and maintenance is when there is danger to life and property – and that hasn’t happened,” Preau added, explaining that the Corps has required these non-federal sponsors and cost-sharers since 1986. “Even before then, the Corps required that some local sponsor be responsible for getting the right-of-way for levee construction and maintenance – which is why the levee boards were created in the first place.”
Preau noted that the repairs for damage done to levees by hurricanes Katrina and Rita will be covered by federal money. “It is my understanding that the federal government is going to pay for repairs to levees for hurricane damage. The levees will be returned to their pre-hurricane state. That means that if there were projects that were not complete, the federal government is not going to complete the planned work but will only put the levees back exactly as they were right before the hurricane struck.”
Almost every levee in the lower part of Louisiana suffered damage from this year’s hurricanes. Besides strengthening the levees (and discovering the flaws in construction and design on the failed canal walls), the levee boards and the Corps must plan for the next catastrophe. A Category 5 hurricane requires higher protection than is currently available for the most vulnerable parts of the state. The question of whether low-lying areas should be inhabited at all is one that Louisiana residents have been pondering since the 18th century – and very likely they will once again vote with their feet and march back in.
Those most involved with Louisiana levees also remember that rivers, too, are a constant concern.
In William Alexander Percy’s “Lanterns on the Levee,” the author, uncle of novelist Walker Percy, describes how, before the great flood of 1927, the planters in the Mississippi Delta walked the levees by night during high water, constantly checking for soundness. Do levee watches still take place?
Ed Preau concedes that this task still is necessary. “Yes … especially during high water conditions.”
The reasoning is simple. “The Mississippi River is a constant threat. Every year, hurricanes come occasionally.”