Blogs > Cliopatria > Rebuilding New Orleans

Aug 31, 2005 5:59 pm

Rebuilding New Orleans

The waters are still rising in New Orleans. Death is all too present, and there are too many demonstrations in the flooded streets of the old Hobbesian wisdom that days without food and electricity can crack the shell of civilization. Refugees, and I do not use the word lightly, are scattered out in a rough semi-circle surrounding the stricken coast. I can do little to stem the ugliness in any of that that.

So I wish to start—if no one else has—a new discussion. How to rebuild New Orleans.

Some will argue that we should ask a different question. Should we rebuild it at all? The location is insane, they will point out, correctly. It’s below sea level; other hurricanes will hit. And we haven’t even discussed the danger posed from the North, which is the Mississippi’s desire to change course and follow the Atchafalaya River to the Gulf. The ecological/economic argument against rebuilding is a sound one.

But I think we will rebuild there, sound arguments be damned. People throughout the world have built and rebuilt in illogical places, when they have loved those places enough, and a lot of love has gone into New Orleans. Rebuilding is OK with me. New Orleans is rich enough in many non-monetary ways to be worth a lot of money, sweat, and tears.

But how will the rebuilding occur? Will it be lot by lot, insurance payment by insurance payment, with some owners selling out to a mix of dreamers and speculators, while others settle in for years of hard work.? That’s the ordinary way, and like many ordinary ways, it works well enough most of the time. It will probably work in most of the damaged areas outside New Orleans, except perhaps in the Biloxi-Gulfport stretch. Like the people of New Orleans, Katrina has given them a harder task, and we should help them, too.

But the scale of rebuilding New Orleans is comparable with nothing in US history, with the exceptions, perhaps, of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and the Chicago Fire of 1871. The construction techniques and the labor situation were very different in those situations. And neither city had to construct new levy systems as a part of the development.

I think the scale of the damage and the necessity to reshape the systems protecting the city from flood means that rebuilding parts of New Orleans will not be rebuilding at all, but the creation of something new. If am right, who will shape the new parts of the city? The people who return; government, both state and federal; large corporations; or some chaotic combination? And will those new parts be true to the old spirit, or, for good or ill, will a new spirit shape and inhabit them?

There are years of work ahead. For those not swamped by the necessities of survival, it is time to start dreaming of what that work will be.

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John H. Lederer - 9/4/2005

I wondered why we had heard nothing about the USS Bataan, an LHD (size of WWII carrier with landing craft and helicopters) which was tasked with following Katrina into the impact area. Last I had heard she was making 5 knots trying to wend her way through the upper Gulf where navigation was difficult because of loss of aids and shifted oil rigs.

I now see that she launched her first helos to New Orleans Tuesday,

Greg James Robinson - 9/3/2005

Can anyone say whether there were lessons learned from the flooding of Florence in 1966, which is the only case I can think of in recent memory of a first world city being deluged?

Andrew D. Todd - 9/3/2005

Well, in the first place, when the U.S.S. Liberty was attacked by the Israelis in 1967, after being mistaken for an Egyptian, they pressurized the flooded compartments to drive out most of the water. The density of air is about a thousandth part of that of water, so pressurizing the compartment to, say, 10 PSI (20 ft depth) does not add appreciable weight, or diminish buoyancy. The forces on the bulkheads are substantially the same as if the compartment were flooded, of course, but the bulkheads are designed to take that. In the case of grounding, the holes would be on the bottom, so there wouldn't be too much need to replenish the air, once it was pumped up. Of course, by the time the business was done, the ship would be appreciably the worse for wear, and it would probably be a good idea to choose one of the oldest ships still operational, or capable of being gotten back into service within a reasonable period of time. Apart from anything else, some of the older ships (pre-Spruance-class) don't have these great big sonar domes, and their draft is about ten feet shallower in consequence.

I had heard that the New Orleans pumps were somewhere in the 10,000 hp range, though I think that was individual units. I should think the total might be somewhere on the order of 100,000 hp. They would have to be powerful enough to deal with several inches of rain within a few minutes. Problem is, the pumphouses seem to have collapsed in many cases, and that kind of thing simply cannot be bought off-the-shelf. In any case, there's no electricity to power them, and/or they are under water and/or shorted out. As near as I can make out, the Corps of Engineers plan seems to be based around gradually draining off water at low tide, probably using one-way valves.

Second point: a ship moves forwards by pushing water backwards. This means that a ship's propeller is halfway to being a pump, even if that is not the intended use. Put down enough anchors so that the ship can't go anywhere, and perforce, it will be the water that does the moving. This principle has been employed with jet engines for various salvage-type operations. There was that Hungarian device for putting out oil well fires back in 1991 (made of a tank, a Mig jet engine, and a robot arm), and some of the railroads use obsolete jet engines as snow blowers for clearing yards.

The gut fact is that the Navy is organized around speed, not hauling ability, and most of its biggest engines are in 30-35-knot ships. In an emergency, you take what is available, and try to press it into service somehow or other. Take the St. Nazaire raid, or the Dunkirk and Crete evacuations as a standard of reference, and the probable risks seem very small. I gather that New Orleans' pumping system vents into lake Ponchartrain, because that is a matter of twenty feet lower than the Mississippi. There are these drainage canals between levees reaching into the center of the city, where the ground level is lowest, and the pumps push the water up into the canals. So that is where the ships will have to go. One way or another, they will have to be pontooned up to intracoastal waterway depth. If there are things like bridges in the way, the bridges will simply have to be demolished. Those bridges are useless without New Orleans, anyway.

There are very few scenarios in which the Navy would have to use more than a small fraction of its forces. Practically always, other limitations apply. You aren't going to fight a second Leyte Gulf, and stranding five or ten surface combatants off New Orleans is not going to have a measurable effect on American naval power. You take off nonessential personnel and equipment of course-- don't run risks that you don't have to. In the long run, national power has more to do with things like perceived legitimacy than it does with purely material factors. It would be better for the Navy to try to do something about New Orleans, and fail with losses, than not to have tried at all.

John H. Lederer - 9/3/2005

It has been 35 years since I was ina damage control party on a destroyer, and my ship had been built in WWII so the information is (1) obsolete and (2) processed through a failing memory.

My memory is that we were taught that a 1 sq. ft. hole in the bottom was the rough equivalent of all pumping capacity on board. The higher up the hole, the larger it could be because of reduced pressure.

The ship would not sink from a 1 sq. ft. hole because of compartmentalization but it was a illustrative way of emphasizing the need of stopping up the hole, either with padding and braces from inside or by fothering it from outside.

Modern destroyers are a lot bigger and probably have a lot more pumping capacity. The main turbines are very powerful, but that power is not available for pumping.

I don't know what the pumping capacity is of the normal NO pumps but I think I have read that thgey are very large.

A more useful ship for NO would be some of the tugs, fireboats, and utility vessels the navy posesses. These have much more powerful pumps, sometimes driven directly off the main engines.

A main problem right now is that the Mississippi is not navigable because of loss of channel markers, wrecks, and shifted channels. Moreover the Gulf off the mouth is hazardous because many of the 4000 oil structures have shifted and a few of sunk.

Andrew D. Todd - 9/2/2005

I agree with you that New Orleans has to be pumped out fast, or there is no point in pumping it out at all.

We are talking about a maritime environment here, and the Corps of Engineers' resources are limited. It is the Navy that has the equipment. For example, with clever contrapting, it might be possible to use destroyers as large-scale improvised bilge pumps. Say, notionally, that about twenty-five square miles are flooded to an average depth of ten feet.

weight = 25 sq_mi * 5280 ft * 5280 ft * 10 ft * 62 lbs/cube_ft = 432,115,200,000 lbs

Say an average lift of five feet, and convert to horsepower-hours:

Energy = weight * 5 ft / 550 lb_ft_pr_sec / 3600 = 1, 091, 200 hp_hrs

Of course this makes no allowance for inefficiency, but say, ten percent efficiency. So we might be talking about something in the ballpark of ten million horsepower-hours. A typical navy destroyer develops about 70,000 hp. There is basically nothing in the merchant marine which matches a destroyer for a lot of power in a fairly small package, with fairly shallow draft. I think if you had to, using barges as supplementary pontoons, or "camels," you could lighten a destroyer to the point that it would only draw about ten feet. The SeaBees would presumably have to weld together some kind of housing which would fit over the ship's propellers, and then the ship could be backed into the end of a drainage canal, or something like that. I don't have a really detailed proposal at this stage-- too many unknowns. However, if you can't do it one way, you can do it another way. Of course you might very well lose a ship or two in the process, but this is surely a "do-or-die" occasion.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/1/2005

I think it will take longer for the heroic and altruistic stories to make their way out, particularly in the "if it bleeds it leads" media. Though heartwarming usually sells pretty well, too....

Ralph E. Luker - 9/1/2005

John, You've been reading too many "shoot to kill" bloggers or whatever. The scandal isn't the looting by poor, desperate people, but the absolute failure of authorities, Democrats and Republicans alike, at every level of government, to foresee the necessity of getting those who had no means of transportation _out_ of the city. If we couldn't mobilize for that emergency with a good 48 hour notice, we'll play hell mobilizing for another urban crisis with no notice whatsoever.

John H. Lederer - 9/1/2005

The Corps is now talking about 3-6 months to pump out New Orleans. To me that means that all of the area flooded is a total writeoff. Pavement and concrete structures (built with concrete graded for non-immersed use) will deteriorate in that time.

What would then be left is the area right along the river (Downtown and French Quarter incuded), the western edge of Jefferson parish, and the parts of New orleans across the river.

New Orleans is distinctive in being an isolated city. Unlike say New York, there is no huge populous metropolitan area that supports the city itself.

So by the time New Orleans could be rebuilt people will have long moved away, obtained new jobs, etc. There will be many left, but a very diminshed population. Just building new housing and structures will not necessarily bring them back.

Perhaps equally important, I sense that the spirit of New Orleans may have been broken, particularly by the looting. Unlike New York on 9/11 this was not New Orlean's finest hour.

The initial need to rebuild New Orleans would be both a requirement that any building be above sea level (huge amounts of fill) and that there be a redundant flood protection system (perhaps two levees around the perimeter).

That is a pretty tall order. If filled it is likely to make rebuilding New Orleans a very long protracted process--decades.

Moreover the raison d'etre for New Orleans existence was as a port for the interior of the U.S.. It is still a very sigificant port, but the cargo has changed to bulk commodities that require little handling (and few jobs). What travels down the Mississippi today is much different than what did in 1890.

Perhaps what we will end up with is a tourist town, much smaller, and a heavy industrial area, and a metropolitan are of perhaps 250-500,000 largely served by existing buildings rather than a "new" New Orleans in a 1.3 million metrpolitan area.

Think a combination of Atlantic City (though one heck of a lot better looking and more congenial) and Port Arthur, Texas.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/1/2005

Sorry for my failure to live up to your expectations, David. Your expertise as an environmental historian has been missing at Cliopatria. I did just recommend Ari Kelman's A River and Its City and Kelman's article at Slate to HNN's Rick Shenkman. We'll try to do better in measuring up to your expectations in the future.

David Lion Salmanson - 9/1/2005

I'm diappointed in both you and Ralph for not immediately pointing to the numerous works by environmental historians who have studied these types of tragedies extensively. Where in all the media coverage is the voice of Ted Steinberg whose book Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disasters is extremely relevant right now.
To answer your more specific question, NO should be much smaller with lots of wetlands protecting it.