You are on page 1of 4

Amanda Rutledge

Period 9
Construction of the Katrina Levees
Undoubtedly, most of the tragedy and wreckage in New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina
could have been avoided had the levees not broken. As breaches arose at various points along the levees,
especially in the lower ninth ward, water came pouring into New Orleans, flooding most of the city.
Throughout the miles of levees that span New Orleans, “dozens of breaches” made it so that years later,
the damage of the hurricane can still be seen, and the recovery effort is still ongoing (Marris). What is
surprising, however, is that the levy system was supposed to withstand much stronger winds than the ones
brought with Katrina. If the levees had not been breached, the amount of destruction of Katrina would not
be nearly as high. The devastation due to the hurricane could have been prevented by a number of factors,
but had the levees not failed, most of the wreckage as a result of Katrina could have been avoided.
The history of levy systems in New Orleans started in the colonial era, as settlers started to notice
the high waters surrounding the region. French immigrants built the first levy around New Orleans in
around 1718, modeling the structure after the levees of Europe. Levees were, before the early 1800’s, the
responsibility of citizens, and not built by the government. After a series of floodings that devastated most
of the Mississippi River region, the federal government passed the Swamp Acts of 1850, an act that
permitted private citizens to buy land from each state government. The money collected was to be used
for creation of more permanent levees, thus setting the precedent of government oversight of the New
Orleans levees (Rodgers).
According to many reports published after Katrina, the system of levees were doomed to fail from
the beginning. Primarily, the soil under the levees was not conducive to protection against floodwaters. A
study from Tulane found considerable amounts of erosion under each of the levy structures, ones made
with soil containing high amounts of silt and sand. This provided only a “passive resistance” against the
high water levels, and quickly washed away, leaving the levees vulnerable to breaches. As an example,
the levees along the London Avenue Canal were significant ones that were breached. An analysis of the
soil below reveals marsh below the levy site, and a thin layer of sand overtop. Marsh is an extremely
weak surface to build upon, as swamp land is often springy, not sturdy, as one would desire for stability in
a structure. Sand is also a relatively weak building material. It erodes much faster than dirt, or cement.
Once the sand was washed away by the Katrina flood waters, the only protection to London Avenue
would be the marsh surface, a weak defense against a hurricane. (Sills et. al.). This information on soil
quality and type was not hard to obtain, and would certainly take no more than a quick visit to New
Orleans to confirm. The obvious issues such as soil problems with the levees around the city left many
New Orleans residents unhappy with or even suspicious of the government, as blaringly clear issues with
the levees existed even before Katrina made landfall.
The failures of the levees caused many to shift the blame of Katrina to the organization
responsible for designing and maintaining the levees; the Army Corps of Engineers. A research team from
University of California Berkeley received a grant to study the failures of the levees shortly after Katrina,
eventually producing a 500 page report of why the levees were built incorrectly. One of their finding was
that after 40 years of continual work, the levy system around New Orleans was still unfinished in certain
areas. In most others, the steel supports driven into the ground were not long enough to be adequate, with
the levees themselves being built on beds of sheet piles too small to serve as a barrier between the marshy
swamplands and the solid concrete of the levy (Schwartz). Why the Army Corps designed the levy system
so poorly continues to be unconfirmed by the government, but popular theories claim that the military
prioritized saving money over safety, cutting costs whenever possible. By shortening the steel supports or
sheet piles, the Army Corps would be able to save a significant amount of money, as the price of metal or
other building materials is not negligible.
Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, but one whose effects could have been easily prevented
with more oversight before the storm. Such a preventable action could have been the construction of more
permanent levees in New Orleans. The history of the city is full of tales of continuous rebuilding of the
levees, structures that seem to never have been completely stable. In Katrina, the failures of the levees,
numerous breaches that occurred without floodwaters even surpassing the top of each levy, was caused by
poor construction and oversight, the responsibilities of the Army Corps.
Works Cited
Marris, Emma. “'Human Error' Doomed New Orleans Levees.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 3
Nov. 2005.
Rogers, J David. “Evolution of the Evolution of the Levee System Along Levee System Along the Lower
the Lower Mississippi River.” Natural Hazards Mitigation Institute Natural Hazards Mitigation
Institute Department of Geological Engineering, University of Missouri University of Missouri.
Schwartz, John. “New Study of Levees Faults Design and Construction.” The New York Times, The New
York Times, 22 May 2006.
Sills, G, et al. “Overview of New Orleans Levee Failures.” Tulane, Tulane, May 2008.
Bibliography
Beller, Thomas. “Don't Call It Katrina.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017
Handwerk, Brain. “ New Orleans Levees Not Built for Worst Case Events.” National Geographic,
National Geographic Society, 2 Sept. 2005,
Marris, Emma. “'Human Error' Doomed New Orleans Levees.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 3
Nov. 2005.
Rogers, J David. “Evolution of the Evolution of the Levee System Along Levee System Along the Lower
the Lower Mississippi River.” Natural Hazards Mitigation Institute Natural Hazards Mitigation
Institute Department of Geological Engineering, University of Missouri University of Missouri.
Schwartz, John. “Army Corps Admits Flaws in New Orleans Levees.” The New York Times, The New
York Times, 1 June 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/06/01/us/01cnd-corps.html.
Schwartz, John. “New Study of Levees Faults Design and Construction.” The New York Times, The New
York Times, 22 May 2006.
Shirley, Jolene S. “USGS Scientists Investigate New Orleans Levees Broken by Hurricane Katrina.”
US Geological Survey, Soundwaves, Dec. 2005
Sills, G, et al. “Overview of New Orleans Levee Failures.” Tulane, Tulane, May 2008.
Warrick, Joby, and Spencer Hsu. “Levees' Construction Faulted In New Orleans Flood Inquiry.” The
Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Nov. 2005.