Broken Levees, Broken Lives, and a Broken Nation after Hurricane Katrina
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Broken Levees, Broken Lives, and a Broken Nation after Hurricane Katrina
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Many people viewed the extreme disorder after Hurricane Katrina as the failure of a comprehensive system of public works and emergency preparedness they assumed was designed to ensure safety and security. No such system exists. This aerial view of the flooded Ninth Ward the day after the storm shows the break in the levee (left). Photograph by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA.

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Many people viewed the extreme disorder after Hurricane Katrina as the failure of a comprehensive system of public works and emergency preparedness they assumed was designed to ensure safety and security. No such system exists. The national flood control program began in the late nineteenth century as a series of engineering projects intended to promote economic development and to unify the nation's territory after western expansion and then Civil War. Its public safety protections were limited to partial levee lines in a few cities west of the Appalachian range. As the urgency to integrate territory passed, national unification faded as a justification for the flood control program, and Congress focused on approving engineering projects to promote economic development in specific locations. Concern about public safety from the 1950s on motivated thousands of individual federal projects to create or increase protection in urban and suburban areas, including hurricane levees near New Orleans.1 Despite decades of building levees and floodways, the grand goals of prosperity and national integration, as well as public safety, have been only partially realized for the lower Mississippi Valley. Hurricane Katrina made this quite clear.

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Since federal levee building began, the number of people near flood-prone areas along the lower Mississippi River and elsewhere in the country has increased dramatically, with marginalized groups often clustering in the most hazardous areas. New Madrid spillway, between the levee and the Mississippi River, where highway officials took evicted sharecroppers, New Madrid County, Missouri, 1939, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

Re-engineering our country's rivers through the federal flood control program has in some ways made us less safe. Since federal levee building began, the number [End Page 90] of people near flood-prone areas along the lower Mississippi River and elsewhere in the country has increased dramatically, with African Americans in poverty, and other marginalized groups, often clustering in the most hazardous areas, thus prompting vast increases in property losses from river floods. The program's success so far is that while more people now live in floodplains, few die from river and rainstorm flooding. Yet a break in a major levee on a highly engineered river could push fast-flowing water into one of our cities with explosive force far greater than Katrina brought to New Orleans.

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While public expectations about safety have increased, they have not been matched by coordinated policies to reduce our exposure to hazards, protect socially essential areas that remain vulnerable, and provide emergency services when protections fail. A New Orleans neighborhood the day after Katrina, photographed by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA.

New Orleans was and is a special case. Federal river and hurricane levees have prevented river silt from depositing, causing nearly all of the city's land to compact and sink below the normal water levels of the nearby Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. The city must run pumping stations to remove water from its storm sewer system into drainage canals even after the slightest rainstorm. Katrina's storm surge broke federal hurricane levees and the federal- and city-built floodwalls and levees along drainage canals leading to the lake, easily flooding the city. Although the massive federal levees along the Mississippi River stayed intact during Katrina, these river levees did the most to make the city subside in the first place. The focus here is on the origins of the federal flood control program, which built all of the federal projects. Successive rounds of projects intended to improve [End Page 91] the safety of New Orleans and other cities and suburbs have taxed a federal program...