Infrastructure Past, Present, and Future Casebook/New Orleans Levees

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Louisiana Levee System Summary[edit | edit source]

A levee system consists is a structure that protects, prevents, and reduces the high risk impact of flooding that could potentially negatively affect a society. A levee reduces the damage of vertical and horizontal infrastructure like when Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana damaged a lot of homes, commercial buildings, hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, etc. The impact of the flooding destroys societal infrastructures as well like how Hurricane Katrina not only did physical damage to the buildings but also led to reconstructing the Levee System overall. The hurricane impacted policies in Louisiana, as well as existing and new institutional structures like the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers and Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority post Hurricane Katrina.

What is a levee/levee system?[edit | edit source]

The National Flooding Insurance Program defines a levee as "a man-made structure, usually an earthen embankment, designed to contain, control, or divert the flow of water in order to reduce the risk of flooding."[1]

The National Flooding Insurance Program defines a levee system as "a flood protection system which consists of a levee, or levees, and associated structures, such as closure and drainage devices." [1]

Timeline of Events[edit | edit source]

Before 1717 attempts to control the Mississippi River consisted mainly of fortifying the river's natural levees. The French then proceeded to build the first man-made levee system near New Orleans from 1717 to 1727. The levee measured up to 3 feet in most locations it was constructed but failed to contain the river during periods of heavy flooding. The levees were privately maintained by local landowners, who used slaves and prisoners to perform the work. [2]

In 1859 however, a levee rupture close to New Orleans flooded 200 city blocks and displaced thousands of residents. Because of this, Congress passed the Swamp Act and conducted surveys of the lower Mississippi River. This sparked debate as to how the river should be controlled, more levees? Or more man-made outlets and spillways? Soon after, the levee system was greatly damaged during the Civil War. After the war, the State Board of Levee Commissioners, allocated monies to replace the sections that were damaged. Despite this, not much was accomplished by 1870. [2]

This then resulted in Congress replacing the State Board of Levee Commissioners with the Mississippi River Commission. This new commission was created to maintain and control the Mississippi river. [2]

Starting in 1885, under the leadership of Andrew A. Humphreys, the US Army Corps of Engineers started a "levees only" policy. This policy resulted in the US Army Corps of Engineers extending the Louisiana Levee system and other levee systems near the Mississippi River. By 1926, the US Army Corps of Engineers created a levee system that extended from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans. [2]

42 years later, one of the most destructive river floods occurred in US history. The Great Flood of 1927 landed in seven states and caused roughly 637,000 people to become homeless. In Louisiana alone, 20 parishes went underwater. One noteworthy event that happened in Louisiana happened on April 29, when politicians ordered the National Guard to destroy the Caernarvon levee to protect New Orleans by redirecting the flood to the less populated region of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes. Two days before the destruction of the levee, trucks and convoys were sent to evacuate around 10,000 residents whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed. [3]

38 years later, Hurricane Betsy, one of the deadliest and costliest storms in US history landed near New Orleans. On September 9,1965 seventy-six people died, and the storm caused more than $1 billion in damages. It resulted in the establishment of the US Army Corps of Engineers Hurricane Protection Program, which provided the protection for New Orleans that failed disastrously during Hurricane Katrina. [4]

40 years later, Hurricane Katrina and Rita struck New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina was especially deadly, being the largest and 3rd strongest hurricane ever recorded to make landfall in the United States. Around 1,577 Louisiana residents died. Additionally, it is estimated that hurricane Katrina caused up to $81 billion in property damages. However, it is also estimated that the economic impact combined in Louisiana and Mississippi exceeded $150 billion. [5]Due to Hurricane Katrina exposing how fragile the state of Louisiana's levee systems the state along with the aid of Congress completely rebuilt its flood protection system. With the allotment of $14 billion from Congress, The US Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, or HSDRRS for short. Lastly, the Louisiana legislature created the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority east/west after making the conclusion that the protection of its citizens would be better served by combining its many New Orleans levee districts. [6]

Institutions/Annotated List of Actors[edit | edit source]

There is no single authority responsible for the entire system of levees in Louisiana. Instead it is a combination of multiple institutions that actively work together to deliver risk information, provision, production, maintenance, and coordination.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) works to identify flood hazards and assess flood risk for stakeholders, such as damage to property or businesses, as well as any other financial risks throughout levee-affected areas. They work with federal, state, local, and even tribal partners to help identify and understand each area’s specific risk and how best to alleviate it. They are also responsible for the establishment of various programs such as the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) and Flood Risk Products (FRPs). These are up to date compilations of data that is able to assess and communicate these risks within the flood hazard areas, which then leads to policy action. [7]Convincing people of the risks can be a difficult sell because the levee system is created to control floods and reduce the risks, yet the system cannot eliminate it. Levee failures can be caused by various different circumstances such as improper maintenance, inadequate foundations, erosion, seepage, etc. Because of this, FEMA states it is imperative for the local and state governments and its citizens to understand and take proactive measures to reduce the chance of a levee failure.

One of the most critically important aspects of FEMA’s work is their ability to decrease risk to stakeholders in the area, they do this by providing insurance to those who are impacted by flooding. The National Flood Insurance Program was established on August 1, 1968 when Congress passed the National Flood Insurance Act. This act has been modified over the years, but its main goal is to provide federal insurance to homeowners, renters, and business owners. [7]

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is responsible for the construction and maintenance of the system levee’s not just throughout the New Orleans area and Mississippi river valley, but across the entire country. Their Levee Safety Program is meant to ensure the reliability and capability of the levee structure that are able to withstand severe storms and then recommend courses of action. Their recommendations are to make sure the system does not allow for intolerable risk to the public, property, and the environment. [8]

The USACE has also undergone the implementation of a number of vital flood control projects in the New Orleans area. The Bonnet Carrè Spillway, which is located 28 miles above New Orleans, is the southernmost floodway from the Mississippi River system. It is situated in St. Charles Parish on the east bank where it can divert some of the flood water from the river into a nearby lake, which then flows into the Gulf of Mexico, thus allowing high water to bypass New Orleans and other nearby river communities. [9]

Hurricane and Storm Damage and Risk Reduction System:

After the devastation of Katrina the Corps of Engineers was authorized and received federal funding of 14.6 billion dollars to design and build the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS). This is the flood protection system responsible for protecting the coastal regions of southeast Louisiana. This was a project meant to construct new levees, flood walls, flood gates, pumping stations or upgrade existing ones. The goal is to diminish the risk of hurricane and storm damage in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area. The HSDRRS is the single largest civil works project in the history of the USACE. The system is intended to increase public safety and reduce property damage from storm surges in southeast Louisiana. [10]

It comprises a total of 350 mile long perimeter system that consists of two Congressionally authorized risk reduction projects; the Lake Pontchartrain Vicinity located on the east bank of the Mississippi, and the West Bank and Vicinity. It is a combination of barriers, sector gates, floodwalls, floodgates and levees which provides a “wall” around each of the vicinities. It also contains 70 miles of interior risk reduction systems including 73 nonfederal pumping stations, 3 canal closure structures, and 4 gated outlets [11]. The interior risk reduction system includes both the world’s largest surge protector and the world’s largest drainage pump station. The System significantly reduces the risk of flooding for over 1 million residents in the Greater New Orleans area from a 100- year storm; this is a severe storm surge that has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. [12]After the completion of various projects within the system, the USACE relinquishes operation and maintenance duties and transfers it to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority.

South East Louisiana Flood Protection Authority:

Another critically important institutional aspect of the levee system is the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority (SLFPA) which was created in 2006. This is an institution that was formed as a direct result of the aftermath and destruction of hurricane Katrina. The state of Louisiana felt that the coordination of levee system projects and plans would be more efficient if the levee districts were regionalized rather than constructed by the USACE and maintained solely by local levee boards as it was before Katrina. [13]

The SLFPA is broken up into two regions, east and west; this due to the fact that the East Bank and the West Bank are separated by the Mississippi River and are located in two different flood basins. The threat of flooding on the East Bank comes from Lake Pontchartrain while the threat of flooding on the West Bank comes from storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico. Because of this, the East and West both have different priorities and areas of focus; hence they are run by separate boards, all of whom are appointed by the governor. The SLFPA works closely with the US Army Corps of Engineers, by providing input on design and construction of the HSDRRS and its components. When the last major project of the levee system was officially completed, the operation responsibilities were transferred from the USACE to the SLFPA. [13]

Risk[edit | edit source]

The New Orleans East and West Bank Levee Systems are classified as high risk due to significant costs associated with the system in combination with the possibility of it being broke in to. Its risks are due to the fact that, if breached, both commercial and residential areas in St. Charles, Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard, and Plaquemines parishes would be flooded with water. Another risk associated with the levee system is a breach prior to overtopping due to the lack of armoring. Armoring for all of the HSDRRS levees with High Performance Turf Reinforcement Mats are being installed to increase the resiliency of the levees. The HSDRRS is alsos designed to reduce the risk associated with a 100-year storm. The levees are in good condition and expected to perform well under future loads. [14] [16]

Maps/Images[edit | edit source]

Map of Louisiana Levee System


New Orleans West Bank.png

First Map: [15]; Second Map: [14] ;Third Map: [16]

Funding/Financing[edit | edit source]

Due to the lack of profit motive associated with levee systems, it is something that is completely funded/financed through governments at all levels; federal, state, and local. Levees are a pure public good that everyone benefits from, because they are non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Non-rivalrous by the means of one person’s consumption does not hinder another person’s consumption. Non- excludable meaning everyone in the levee affected area benefits from its use regardless of whether you paid for it or not.

After Katrina, the federal government authorized funds for 14.6 billion dollars in order to upgrade existing and construct new structures to secure the New Orleans levee system. The federal government completely funded all of the original levee and flood control infrastructure that was destroyed. However, the federal government funded 65% of the additional new projects that strengthen Louisiana’s levee system such as floodgates, pump stations, and surge barriers while the Louisiana government took payment of the rest of the 35% with interest. [17]

Yet Louisiana is struggling to pay the debt back in time. For the first ten years, Louisiana did not have to make any payments on the 35% they owed. But, during those ten years, interest began to accumulate immediately. Currently the US legislatures from Louisiana are working on a deal to allow for the forgiveness of construction interest charges if Louisiana is able to pay off their debt fully by 2023. If they are able to pay off this debt, Louisiana will be able to save at least $1 billion in interest charges. If they are unable to pay it back, the state will have to structure a 30 year repayment plan, with interest; the total cost associated would be close to $3 billion. [18]

The authority has the ability to gain funding through taxes from referendums or can request funds through grants, authorizations, or appropriations from the state or local governments. In order to obtain such funding, the SLFPA must be able to forecast its upcoming financial responsibilities. That being said, it is very difficult to forecast upcoming financial responsibilities because of the various demands and regulations being placed on the authority, which in turn requires more funding to meet these demands. Their 2015 forecast suggested that due to insufficient funds of jurisdictional expenses beyond 2016, the SLFPA-W would be at a 50 million dollar deficit by 2024. To combat this financial insufficiency, the SLFPA-W launched a public education campaign and put tax referendums on the ballot for the West Jefferson Levee District (WJLD) and the Algiers Levee District (ALD). The tax was approved by the ALD but it failed in the WJLD. [19]

Policy Issues[edit | edit source]

Natural Flood Solutions and climate change:

Climate is testing the limits of infrastructure nation-wide.  More specifically, with more extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels, the traditional infrastructure used to build levees are being called into question. Even though the New Orleans levee system, which was rebuilt after hurricane Katrina, is stronger and more effective than it was previously before Katrina, it does nothing to change the reality that New Orleans is currently sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.  Also, the New Orleans levee system is only designed to withstand a hundred year storm, which is concerning given that the occurrence of five hundred year floods is becoming more common.  . Additionally,  other levee systems were also not as fortunate as the New Orleans levee system in combating hurricane Ida.  For example, the town of Lafitte was inundated by the hurricane even though they recently created a seven foot tall levee that had been intended as a long term investment for the small shrimping town. [20]

Levee failures during Ida, such as those in Lafitte, expose the reality that no matter how tall you are able to build a wall, nature at some point will always be able to topple it, especially in the state of climate change we are in right now.  One policy decision that can be derived from this is some sort of coordinated relocation of people living in flood prone areas,  also known as “managed retreat” by climate experts.  As weather events become more severe and sea levels continue to rise, continuing to spend resources on levees seems futile.  And even if the relocation of major cities such as New Orleans is not attainable, doing so in other places, such as the town of Latiffe, is necessary and achievable. [20]

Another course of policy is the adoption of natural flood solutions. Like it sounds, natural flood solutions seek to use the environment of the United States to combat floods, rather than continuing to build levees with concrete and steel.  The realization that climate change is challenging the traditional ways in which the United States has gone about controlling and preventing floods is so obvious, Congress recently passed the 2020 Water Resources Development Act.  The act directs the US Army Engineer of Corps to consider nature-based systems just as much as traditional levee infrastructure. [21]

One example of a natural flood control solution was when the US Army Corps of Engineers built a 5 mile stretch in Missouri river after one of their levees was over toppled.  This opened about 1,000 acres of floodplain that helped reduce future flooding while also providing habitat for species considered rare and declining in population.  This success story is not the norm however, given that the US Army Corps of Engineers prefers to work fast to repair levees, rather than construct pathways for diverting flood water, and need time to acquire land, like they did in the Missouri river.  This is concerning because over the past 5 years weather and climate-related disasters have cost the United States more than $630 in damages. [21]

Another  natural flood control solution is mangrove forest.  On top of providing wildlife habitats, they also provide natural protection against flood waves.  Mangroves can also regrow, providing perpetual protection.  Furthermore, one study in 2016 showed that northeastern states saved more than $625 million during superstorm Sandy, in part because areas that have wetlands averaged 10% less property damage than those without. [21]

The impacts of climate change now and in the future, are currently challenging the traditional ways in which the United States manages and controls floods.  Traditional levee infrastructure may not be enough to combat rising sea levels and more extreme weather patterns.    

Environmental Racism?

Inequities in regards to levees and levee systems are apparent in Louisiana.  Ironton, is a small town in Plaquemines Parish, and 30 miles south of New Orleans.  Ironton is also one of the oldest predominantly black communities in Louisiana, founded by freed slaves in 1800, and currently made up of around 52 black families.  Unlike New Orleans, Ironton did not fare as well against Hurricane Ida.  On top of vehicles, sheds, and other sorts of personal property being damaged, more valuable and sentimental objects such as homes, churches, and coffins were damaged, dislodged, or/and even completely destroyed. [22]

Many residents of Ironton believe that if the government of Louisiana had invested enough resources into creating adequate levees, the extreme damages that occurred because of Hurricane Ida would have been prevented.  According to US Army Corps of Engineers public affairs specialist René Poché, the levees near Ironton and other communities were essentially mounds of dirt and provided little protection from the 150 mph winds that the storm produced. [23] Audrey Trufant, a former Plaquemines Parish councilwoman, sees the destruction in Ironton as primarily a man made disaster saying, “This could have been prevented years ago, but its due to discrimination and the history of this parish that we’re in the predicament that we’re in today”. [22]

Lastly, the lack of resources to create and maintain adequate flood control safety measures have been speculated to be in part influenced by the states desire to let private fossil fuel companies set up shop in resource rich land. [22]

Narrative[edit | edit source]

Louisiana's Levee System is a major portion of Louisiana’s infrastructure. The Levee system is centered around the creation of different policies that institutions like FEMA, USACE, and SLFPA make. FEMA, a federal agency, works with state, local, and tribal representatives to help identify and analyze flood hazards and its financial risk. Some ways that FEMA does this is through the creation of reports such as Flood Insurance Rate Maps and Flood Risk Products.

The SLFPA was created after Hurricane Katrina, to centralize various parishes to help with the coordination of flood control amongst the New Orleans parishes. It is divided into two entities known as the East and West due to their locations along the Mississippi River.

After Hurricane Katrina, the USACE was funded $14.6 billion by the federal government to construct the HSDRRS. Their main goal was to create a system of protection against flooding in the coastal regions of southeast Louisiana. New levees, flood walls, flood gates, and upgraded pumping stations were constructed to lower the risk of damages associated with storms in New Orleans.

Levees are public goods, therefore, Louisiana's levee system is publicly funded because the private sector has no motivation for profit. As stated above, Louisiana was given $14.6 billion, yet they are having trouble paying back their dues with interest. The federal government has funded 65% of the cost but the other 35% must be payed by the state. Louisiana can either pay off their debt in full without interest by 2023, or structure a 30 year payment plan.

Climate change has challenged the way that traditional flood control measures are implemented. Levees will not change the fact that the water levels are rising and the increasing frequency of extreme weather patterns in the region. No matter how much is invested into the levee system, nature will win out eventually. Policy such as relocation and nature based flood protection are being seriously considered due to these circumstances that they face. Lastly, predominantly black parishes outside of New Orleans have face even more dire consequences of climate change the most due to their lack of resources and funding.

Lessons/Takeaways[edit | edit source]

One takeaway is that instead of pouring money into already prosperous and high income areas, it would be ideal fund more poorer areas. Funding high income areas creates bigger wealth gaps between the high and low income communities. It creates a sense of inferiority where there is a distinguished social ladder that is difficult to climb. Areas that are less fortunate, would be able to reallocate their local funding for levees and invest them into improving education quality, healthcare, and basic government services that they have been lacking. This would help create a more stable economy throughout the state by indirectly closing the wealth gap from investments in human capital.

Another takeaway is the inevitability that climate change will render conventional levee systems obsolete. Therefore, governments will have to enact newer policy solutions to address this.

The lack of transparency regarding levee systems throughout Louisiana is troubling as it makes it harder for residents to understand the risk associated with the levees. Is also makes it more difficult to be informed about the conditions of their local levees and who to contact to address this issue. Although New Orleans had plenty of information about their levees, the same cannot be said about other parishes in the state.

Discussion Questions[edit | edit source]

1.) Should Louisiana be held accountable to paying back their loan to the federal government for the creation of additional levee structures post hurricane katrina? If so, how should Louisiana go about it?

2.) What policy changes, if any, should Louisiana make regarding how climate change challenges traditional flood control measures?

3.) What are your thoughts on predominantly black communities outside of New Orleans not having the adequate resources to create sufficient levee systems that protect them against flooding?

Reference[edit | edit source]

1.) FEMA. “WHAT IS A LEVEE?,” n.d.

2.) The Journal of American History. “New Orlean’s Levee System: Timeline,” December 2007, 693–876.

3.) Jim Bradshaw. “Great Flood of 1927,” n.d.

4.) Kelby Ouchley. “Hurricane Betsy,” n.d.

5.) Do Something .org. “11 FACTS ABOUT HURRICANE KATRINA,” n.d.

6.) Flood Protection Authority West. “History,” n.d.

7.) FEMA. “NFIP and Levees: An Overview,” May 2021.

8.) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Levee Portfolio Report,” March 2018.

9.)  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Who We Are.” Accessed October 19, 2021.

10.) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Corps Releases HSDRRS Comprehensive Environmental Document Phase II for Public Comment.” Accessed October 19, 2021.

11.) Bradberry, Johnny. “State of Louisiana,” June 1, 2017.

12.) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System Facts and Figures,” September 2014.

13.) Flood Protection Authority. “Flood Protection Authority: Who Are We.” Accessed October 19, 2021.

14.) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “National Levee Database.” Database. Accessed October 19, 2021.

15.) “Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act,” April 25, 2018.

16.) US Army Corps of Engineers. “National Levee Database/New Orleans West Bank,” December 30, 2020.

17.) Press, Associated. “Analysis: Louisiana Weighs Hefty Borrowing to Pay Levee Debt.” Biz New Orleans, March 7, 2021.

18.) Deslatte, Melinda. “Louisiana Could Make First Levee Debt Payment without Loan.” AP News, May 21, 2021.

19.) Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority. “Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West: Five-Year Strategic Plan,” February 2016.

20.) Bittle, Jackie. “The Levees Worked in New Orleans — This Time,” September 2, 2021.

21.) Loller, Travis. “Corps of Engineers Considers Nature-Based Flood Control,” October 5, 2021.

22.) Dermansky, Julie. “10 Days After Hurricane Ida, Historic Black Louisiana Town Contends With Scattered Coffins As Floodwaters Drain from the Streets,” September 14, 2021.

23.) Williams, David. “Caskets Are Still Scattered around a Louisiana Community as Residents Struggle to Recover from Hurricane Ida,” September 25, 2021.

Additional Readings[edit | edit source]

1.) Barry, John. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

and How It Changed America. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1997. P. 13-54

2.) Mississippi River Delta Science and Engineering Special Team.  “Answering 10 Fundmental Questions About The Mississippi

River Delta.” Accessed October 20, 2021.