Illusions of Levee and Compulsion to Build
“Floods are an act of God, but flood losses are largely an act of man”— such was the mantra of the pioneer hydrological scholar, Gilbert White. White’s analyses, beginning with a 1945 paper, showed that efforts to contain flood damage by building structures like flood walls and dams had the net result of increasing rather than decreasing risk to humans.1 To “prevent” flood damage, we need to get out of the way of the water—it’s as simple as that. The efforts so often made to stop the water with walls and dams—now known, following White, as the “levee effect”—only create risk. At present, a monument is being built to White in Boulder, Colorado, his last home base and still where some of the world’s leading hydrologists do their research. But his advice, like theirs, is too often ignored.
This chapter examines how not taking White’s advice worked itself out in New Orleans, when Katrina came to call. In the ensuing troubles, almost fifteen hundred people died, billions of dollars were lost in business and residential assets, and hundreds of thousands of lives were disrupted with many individuals never able to return. It is a story of faulty artifacts built out of an equally defective institutional structure, and all with a lot of people in the wrong place. We have a situation where the warning system of an advanced and sophisticated society met up with a response that was, in comparison, primitive— “the worst mishandled disaster I have ever seen in my life,” says Enrico Quarantelli, a fifty year veteran of such events.2 The “mishandling” to which Quarantelli refers was the immediate aftermath, but that was a consequence of a much longer history of error.
Katrina (along with its time-proximate hurricane, Rita) would “have to be,” says Oliver Houck of Tulane’s Law School, “the most well-