A Ridiculous Amount of Safety

The New York Times talks today about investment going into New Orleans to protect it from future Category Five hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina has certainly made a few records and turned several million heads; it is the rallying cry for the rebuilding of one of this nation’s most culturally diverse and festive cities. There are competing interests here, but none stands to waste taxpayer money as much as protecting New Orleans from Category Five hurricanes.

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale defines a Category Five hurricane as follows:

Winds greater than 155 mph (135 kt or 249 km/hr). Storm surge generally greater than 18 ft above normal. Complete roof failure on many residences and industrial buildings. Some complete building failures with small utility buildings blown over or away. All shrubs, trees, and signs blown down. Complete destruction of mobile homes. Severe and extensive window and door damage. Low-lying escape routes are cut by rising water 3-5 hours before arrival of the center of the hurricane. Major damage to lower floors of all structures located less than 15 ft above sea level and within 500 yards of the shoreline. Massive evacuation of residential areas on low ground within 5-10 miles (8-16 km) of the shoreline may be required.

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale
Accessed November 28, 2005

Now, The New York Times reports that citizens of New Orleans are insisting upon a newer, better protection system that will ensure that the city remains intact:

Most Category 5 proposals for New Orleans include devices to close seaward passageways like the Rigolets and gates at the mouths of today’s drainage and navigation canals. Jurjen Battjes, a professor of civil engineering at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and an expert on levee systems, said that approach had worked well in his country. “You don’t want to let your enemy invade deeply into your territory,” Professor Battjes said. “Close your fence at the outside.”

Current levees can be made higher and stronger, and any new system might also include internal levees that would prevent a breach in one spot from swamping large stretches of the city, said Thomas F. Wolff, an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan State University. Levees, Professor Wolff said, are known as “series systems,” which he compared to “Christmas tree lights from the 1950’s – when one goes out, they all go out.”

“For Category 5 Safety, Levees Are Piece of a $32 Billion Pie”
Accessed November 28, 2005

We cannot protect against an undefined threat. Much the same knee-jerk reaction was made after September 11th: products to protect against terrorism and an ongoing drive to secure the country against terrorist threats costs taxpayers untold amounts of money that would be far better invested in, say, paying down the national debt.

New Orleans cannot protect against something that is, by definition, destructive. Certainly, the amount of destruction can be minimized, but with global warming a fast-approaching issue, there is no way of knowing when, where, or how badly the next Category Five hurricane will hit. New Orleans is better off investing in sustainable building practices and a sound evacuation plan for situations where major disasters threaten the city. The same can be said for industrialized nations across the globe. Rather than waste taxpayer money working on a flood protection system that won’t work when it’s absolutely critical, restore what’s there and use the money to redefine what New Orleans means in the eyes of the American public.