Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Our student Ivy Yuan makes this connection here…

The article “7 years after Katrina, inspectors finding dangerous deficiencies in US levees” was published on January 17, 2013 in the Washington Post. According to the article, inspectors are taking the first ever inventory of flood control systems overseen by the federal government. The condition of flood control systems came into sharp focus after Hurricane Katrina tore up the Gulf Coast, leaving damages estimated at $108 million, becoming the costliest storm in US history. Levees deemed in unacceptable condition span the breadth of America. As of January 10, 2013, the agency has published ratings for 1,451, or about 58 percent, of the levees. Of those 1,451, 326 were unacceptable, 1,004 were minimally acceptable with deficiencies that need correcting, and only 121 were acceptable. They earned a D-minus for overall condition from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The most widespread issues include design or construction flaws, inadequate or crumbling infrastructure, failure to control vegetation and invasive animals, and building encroachment. According to the 2009 report card for levees by the American Society of Civil Engineers, there is no definitive record of how many levees there are in the US, nor is there an assessment of the current condition. But in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 that required the establishment and maintenance of an inventory of all federal levees. The inventory is “intended to be a comprehensive, geospatial database that is shared between the US Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, Department of Homeland Security, and the states” (ASCE). The Army Corps of Engineers also has a levee safety program in which they explain that “levees provide tremendous benefits to communities…in 2011 [the levees] contributed to more than $120 billion of damages prevented” (USACE). However, the author left out how not fixing these levees could impact the people living near them.

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Figure 1: Broken levees lead to massive flooding in New Orleans in wake of Hurricane Katrina.

In a broader context, this situation could further exasperate the economic problems that the nation is facing. Local governments are to be responsible for upgrading unacceptable levees. However, majority of these small governments find it unfair to be told to spend millions of dollars that they cannot raise. Other local officials said they would be happy to upgrade their levees- that is, if they could afford it. So it all comes down to not having enough money to upgrade the nation’s flood control system. However, according to a paper by Ezra Boyd (2009),“public and private investment into levees that facilitate settlement into floodplains yield positive net returns”. If this were to be the case, then perhaps spending the money presently would produce benefits in the long run. These issues will continue to be a national problem, as aging and weak flood-control systems will likely face stiffer tests as climate change makes severe storms more common in the coming years.

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Figure 2: Broken levees after Hurricane Katrina.

References

American Society of Civil Engineers. (2009). Report card for America’s infrastructures. Retrieved from http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/fact-sheet/levees

Boyd, Ezra. (2009, December 23). Assessing the benefits of levees: An economic assessment of U.S. Retrieved from http://levees.org/2/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/UsCountiesWithLeveesPaper_Boyd2.pdf.

US Army Corps of Engineers. (n.d.) Levee safety program. Retrieved from http://www.usace.army.mil/Missions/CivilWorks/LeveeSafetyProgram.aspx.

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