“Dutch dialogue” aids New Orleans restoration

August 20, 2010

USA

-Han Meyer is Professor of Urban Design at Delft University of Technology.  He has been a principal organiser of the ‘Dutch Dialogues’ with New Orleans since 2005 and is Editor of ‘New Orleans-Netherlands:  Common Challenges in Urbanised Deltas’. The opinions expressed are his own.-

In August 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated large swathes of the U.S. Gulf Coast and overwhelmed New Orleans causing what then-U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff described as “probably the worst catastrophe, or set of catastrophes” in U.S. history.

Katrina’s punishing storm surge, strong winds and massive rainfall weakened flood protection infrastructure which then failed, flooding coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, including 80 percent of New Orleans:

  • Tragically, at least 1,836 people lost their lives, while a massive 1.3 million residents were evacuated, some never to return.
  • The scale of the carnage is underlined by the fact that U.S. federal disaster declarations covered some 90,000 square miles, an area almost as large as the United Kingdom.
  • The U.S. Geological survey has estimated that some 217 square miles of land was transformed to water by Katrina and Rita.
  • The economic impact of the crisis has been estimated at some 150 billion pounds, with around 81 billion dollars in property damage alone.

The disaster was not only the costliest in U.S. history, but also served as a major warning for all urbanised deltas across the world of the need to maintain sufficient and efficient flood defences and water management systems.  As such, one of the biggest questions raised in New Orleans itself since 2005 has been how, and indeed whether, the city should be reconstructed and redeveloped given the threat it will continue to face from future hurricanes and catastrophic flooding.

This debate has not only prompted major interest from U.S. planners, engineers and designers, but also public authorities and politicians too, including Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, about international best practice, especially the pioneering ‘Dutch tradition’ of combining water management with urban development.

The Netherlands (with about 20 percent of its land area and 21 percent of its population located below sea level, and 50 percent of its land lying less than a metre above sea level) has long been famous for its flood protection systems.

Reflecting this expertise, and with the support of the American Planning Association, I have worked with Delft University of Technology since 2007 as part of a ‘Dutch Dialogue’ project in New Orleans to provide long-term recommendations for enhanced flood protection infrastructure, and reducing subsidence, restoring wetlands, and boosting ecosystem resiliency along the Gulf coast.

Far from New Orleans being a lost cause, our unwavering belief is that ‘out of disasters can come wonderful things’ and that the city can not only survive as a major urban centre, but also prosper and grow if it can get key fundamentals right.

What are these fundamentals?

In short, the essence is the combination of a ‘safety first’ strategy with an improvement of the quality of the urban environment.  A delta-city should not only be safe to live in, but also attractive and enjoyable.  The question is how to combine these two goals.

‘Safety first’ means in practice that the New Orleans area, in particular, has to better adapt to threats inherent in living in a subsiding delta, with protection against hurricanes, floods and excess storm water being the sine qua non for redevelopment.

Since 2005, crucial flood protection infrastructure around coastal Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans has been repaired.  However, this is just the start of what is needed.

Key amongst forthcoming, new safety initiatives is construction of three major storm surge barriers in New Orleans.  Considering the city’s intense rainfall, we have also recommended more storm storage.

Adding water-storage capacity will lower the risk from localised flooding during hurricanes and make it easier to actively manage the water table (and risks levels) just as in the Netherlands.

While safety first must be the priority, New Orleans can also adapt more effectively to a corollary ‘Living with the Water’ principle.  Thus, rather than seeing flood protection systems as being exclusively to ‘keep the water out’ or ‘keeping it contained’, it can re-secure the vibrant and prosperous future it deserves by better exploiting the economic, societal , and cultural gain of being, like Dutch settlements such as Amsterdam, a world leading ‘water city’.

For instance, there are unique opportunities post-Katrina to create more amenities like canals, lakes, ponds, wetlands in and around New Orleans:

  • Additional canal capacity exists in the city:  many old canals were covered or backfilled over the past century.  Moreover, we have also encouraged the construction of new canals and other water storage systems with an ‘urban feel’ (comparable to that in the Netherlands) where people enjoy living near the water.
  • Wetlands can also be created and restored to add robust ecosystems that are attractive, environmentally friendly, enhancing recreation and tourism, and improving sustainability.

To be sure, many in Louisiana and Mississippi believe that the process of reconstruction and redevelopment so far has been insufficient and patchy.  It is certainly true that, some five years later, many thousands of displaced residents continue to live in ‘temporary’ accommodation such as trailers, and, indeed as late as 2009, the New Orleans population of around 320,000 was only two thirds that of its 2005 size of 480,000.

Nonetheless, just as the Netherlands emerged more strongly after the cataclysmic storm surges of 1953 which killed around 2000 people, and flooded most of the southwestern part of the country, I am absolutely sure that a more vibrant, thriving and safer New Orleans is not only possible but also feasible.  Consigning the city to becoming an historical artifact (culturally, economically, socially and strategically) would be shortsighted and a major mistake.

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