Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Ugly End of the Cat

Everybody wants Category Five levee protection. As a solution, it is as obvious and simple as a bumper sticker on the back window before you at a stoplight. Or where a stoplight used to be, before. This solution not only simple, its also simplistic. There are some ugly facts staring at us on the back end of Cat 5 protection.

First, how are we going to pay for it? I currently reside in North Dakota, where a (at the time) catastrophic flood destroyed 8,600 homes, and did between one and two billion dollars in damage. As a result, the federal government agreed to provide eight miles of enhanced floodwall and dike (levee) protection, at a cost of $393 million

The state of North Dakota and the city have to come up with 50% of that cost.

Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular are going to require slightly more than eight linear miles of enhanced protection. And that is going to cost slightly more than $393 million. I think if you add a couple of zeros to that, changing the M in hundreds of millions to a B for tens of billions, you get a little closer.

Where is that money coming from? Currently, state tax collections are off by a billion dollars in 2005, due to the storms and The Flood. On top of that FEMA, is demanding $2.8 billion in reimbursement for their excellent services to date since September. At the city level, New Orleans is considering revoking the tax exemption for non-profits to try to get the garbage picked up. We simply don't have that kind of money

Estimates of building a Category Five system remain speculative, but I haven't seen a figure of less than $30 Billion. Up to half of that would have to be paid by the state and local government. Unless we find a couple dozen of extra billion in cash lying around, Category Five could just be the final nail in our fiscal coffin.

And consider this: only three Category Five storms have every made landfall on the continental United States since we started measuring the weather. Three. Something to consider before we sign up for our half of that 30 Billion dollars.

Next, what good will it do to build Cat Five levees if we don't have Cat Five roofs? As Tim of Tim's Nameless Blog pointed out here, having Cat Five levees could leave us with a bone-dry pile of rubble. The experience of Floridians in the windiest of storms bears this out.

I know among the first things I will do when I get home in June will be to crawl in the attic, and start thinking about how hard it will be to tie my roof down so it stays put up until the point at which the house departs for Munchkin land. (How well, it occurs to me to ask, is my house attached to its piers? I don't know. I think I need an architect or an engineer to figure this out. Kinch?)

Homeowners are going to need assistance not just to rebuild and possibly elevate their homes; they're going to need assistance to make them more wind proof against the day the Big One comes.

Last, how high would those levees need to be if they faced the open Gulf of Mexico? As longtime Picayune outdoors writer and editor Bob Marshall points out here, saving the wetlands is another problem for which bumper sticker solutions just won't do.

Back when I was writing regularly about this subject, I came across a quote by noted coastal authority Sherwood Gagliano, which was roughly this: restoring the coastal wetlands will be as expensive an initiative as the Interstate Highway System or the Apollo space program.

I no longer have the clipping or the notes (quick, where are your notes from 1984?), but it wouldn't matter if Gagliano said it, or someone else said it, or if I mixed up the Apollo and Gemini missions. The fact is, it's an apt way of looking at it. It's going to cost a whole bunch of money, probably as much (adjusted for inflation) as it cost us to send men to the moon. And throw in Skylab for good measure.

While our current resident of 1600 Penn Ave has indicated he'd like to be the President who leads us back to the moon (and as much as people in NOLA would wish him a bon voyage, if he takes Chertoff and Brownie with him), its not clear that America is a nation capable of great works like this.

This is not the generation that built the Hoover Dam, liberated Europe, laid out the Interstates or sent men to the moon. We're the people who brought you the draft deferment, disco and the leveraged buyout, that wants it's tax cut and it's prescription drug benefit. We don't understand sacrifice, because we've never had to face a challenge as large as this.

People in New Orleans are learning about challenge and sacrifice in a way not seen since the Civil War or the Great Depression. To paraphrase a recent political sentiment: 8-29 changed everything. And the guys in Washington just don't get it.

It's clear nobody in Washington is willing to pony up the sort of dollars required to fund just compensation for the Corp's negligence or to pay for Cat Five levees and coastal restoration. They've got the port running, and are getting the oil and gas back on line.

Politically they don't like us, and economically they think don't think they need us. They are simply trying to figure out how to get out of any further obligation as easily and with as little embarrassment as possible, as if we were some pesky sexual harassment lawsuit.

So, how do we change their minds?

Reading a story in the T-P about ten days ago on the lack of compensation for landlords, someone in Baton Rouge suggested those landlords would have to "be incented" to rebuild. That's the (ugly, hackneyed) phrase I was looking for: incented. It doesn't matter if we get Cat Five or Four, or just Cat Three levees that work. The real issue is, how do we open the spigot and get the cash flowing to begin to do what needs to be done?

What sorts of incentives do people best respond to? Greed. Fear. Both of these two work pretty well. They are in fact the keys to power, if we take our current leadership as our example. I think we're going to need to look at how to leverage these two great motivators to remind everyone in that part of the world to our north that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are important to them, that it will cost them a lot to lose us.

I'll save most of my thoughts on how to do that for a follow up post. Let's just say that the Governor's idea of holding up the offshore oil leases is a timid but good start. That got their attention. Now that we have our attention, I think we need to ask them about the rules in a knife fight.

N.B.--To find out how you can help make these things happen (without waiting for my next post, or having to kick anyone below the belt) please visit and volunteer to help.

Great post! I'm in upstate NY but am outraged by the stonewalling tactics of Shrub & Co. I think more serious threats like Blanco's oil lease threat have to be made and carried through. Like you say Fear & Greed is their code. I'd like to see D.C. shutdown by New Orleanians and other people across the country with a sense of justice. Shut it down until they cough up some real Bechtel-like help for the wetlands and levees. It has to be done. There's no other way. I just hope the rest of the nation starts to wake up from its torpor! Keep up the fight and I wish you a safe return home in June.
8-29 not 9-28
Thanks anon. Curse of the dysnumeric.
WHEW! For a minute there I thought you were throwing in the towell. I shoulda known better!
As the city sinks, the seas rise, and the wetlands recede, Cat 5 levees might really only provide Cat 4 protection.

Without more state oil royalties, or some generous federal support, I've no clue where the money will come from.
I still like the idea of going to the White House with a caravan of trucks, and dumping moldy flood debris in a pile on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Great piece in the local rag today. A blogger gone semi-respectable? A scary thought indeed...
Though I do agree with your assessment of the state of our general society in this country, I wish to state that our Nation can rise to the occasion on rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

In my view, this is the 1927 Miss. River Floods all over again. This set up the election of FDR and then the creation of the New Deal. The American People came through then, even with a horrible Depression, and still got things done.

Our country can, and must, do that again.

As many of us from along the Coast that can must keep the words flowing: must keep the damage all of us have suffered alive in the minds of our fellow Americans. This is the only way our lives can be repaired.

OH! The rules of using knives against D.C.? I use Butcher knives and cleavers... I take no prisoners.

Reparations for New Orleans!
How did we get the Mississippi River levees? After the flood of 1927, our government said, "Never Again," and they built a massive flood protection system AT FULL FEDERAL EXPENSE. I think we need that again. We tried to do the local/fed partnering thing, and it just didn't work.

I agree it will take someone of vision and leadership to see the future and inspire America to do this great project, just as Kennedy led us toward the moon. Any suggestions as to who that someone might be? It sure ain't the Current Occupant.

And congrats on the excellent column in the TP. Keep up the good work, and peace,

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