An often-repeated truth about Hurricane Katrina is that the events of August 29, 2005 were not a natural disaster – they were a man-made disaster caused by the failure of levee systems designed to protect the city. In the wake of the devastating storm, President Bush was told the Army Corps of Engineers would “look into” building Category 5 storm protection for New Orleans, and President Obama later stated such protection was an “ultimate goal” for the city. But as a report by Bob Marshall at The Lens and Politifact has determined, the levee system that currently protects the Big Easy is a “compromise” on that goal.
President Obama’s pledge to the city was to “ensure that New Orleans has a levee and pumping system to protect the city against a 100-year storm by 2011, with the ultimate goal of protecting the entire city from a Category 5 storm.” A 100-year storm is a storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.
By contrast, Hurricane Katrina was considered a 400-year storm by the Army Corps of Engineers. There’s no way to correlate x-year storms and Category x storms, particularly given that a Category 1 storm can create a storm surge as great as that of a Category 3 storm. And it’s those storm surges that are of particular focus where levees are concerned.
By 2011 the Army Corps of Engineers had ensured New Orleans would be protected against a 100-year storm via a $14.5 billion project. While the city is protected, the project is not entirely complete–temporary pumping stations will be replaced with permanent ones in 2017. However, as The Lens reports, officials at city and state levels had lobbied for much stronger protection in the wake of Katrina, but had been shot down for two reasons: “The Bush administration did not want to pay for the stronger system, and it was important to build something quickly.”
A study by the USACE in 2006 found protecting the city against a Category 5 storm would require 30-foot levees; instead what the city has at present are flood walls that range from 10.5-30 feet high. This will be further armored in the future, but no additional action has been taken-or indeed proposed, to provide New Orleans with the flood protection that it sought in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.