Online UpdateBig Easy’s Bowl-shaped Topography, Poor Levee Systems May Hamper Drainage Efforts

Remnants of Hurricane Katrina may be all that remains of the storm, but the situation in flooded New Orleans continues to deteriorate.

The water level has been rising in the city because of some of the New Orleans’ distinctive geographical aspects.

Larry Tanner, a research associate for the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center, will travel to Louisiana with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a team of experts to study the effects of the hurricane.

Tanner said New Orleans’ unique geography will significantly hamper any drainage efforts.

“It’s just a big old soup bowl,” he said.

The city, situated from one to 20 feet below sea level and actually shaped like a bowl, has several factors worsening its situation.

Ironically, New Orleans’ levee systems designed to prevent flooding from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River have only exacerbated the flood conditions.

The levees that survived the storm now hold water inside the city, preventing natural drainage from occurring.

Ernst Kiesling, senior assistant dean for the College of Engineering, said the city’s only option for water removal is to pump out the water, but this still presents a dilemma.

“With the difficulty of access to get equipment in there and with the lack of power and so forth, it’s a monumental problem,” he said.

Lack of food and proper sanitation for survivors and rescue workers add to the list of troubles.

Although nothing quite like Katrina has hit the U.S. before, Kiesling said, experts have long-predicted the flooding of New Orleans.

“It’s been feared by people from disaster mitigation for years – it’s their worst nightmare,” he said.

A September 2001 Popular Mechanics article entitled “New Orleans Is Sinking” detailed the events of a hurricane of the same magnitude as Katrina hitting the city.

More recently, an FX miniseries called “Oil Storm” aired in June that predicted similar events and ended with gas prices in the U.S. becoming permanently set at $4.

A slightly similar situation to Katrina occurred in the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and the flooded city responded by building up the city’s foundation and creating a large sea wall to prevent future flooding.

Kiesling said building up the city may or may not be a viable option for New Orleans, as the geography differs from that of Galveston.

In spite of the ever-present danger of flooding, New Orleans continued to grow and expand, Kiesling said, making the damages from Hurricane Katrina all the more devastating.

More stringent building codes are usually met with resistance, but should be enforced in New Orleans with features like stilts and improved building foundations, Kiesling said.

Tanner, who will be traveling to Louisiana possibly as soon as next week, said the emergency team will be planning for the future rather than dealing with the current disaster situation.

“The whole purpose of the investigation is to try to learn how to mitigate the effects of such horrific hazards,” he said.

Blow-out walls and stilted houses built above the designated surge zone are current precautions taken when constructing houses in coastal zones, but even these would not have prevented Katrina’s damage.

The surge level of Katrina breached the designated surge levels in New Orleans by a substantial amount, Tanner said.

Richard Peterson, associate director of the wind

science and engineering program, said Tech researchers are retrieving wind data from three experimental towers that managed to operate during the storm.

He said after the city is drained, it is very likely New Orleans will be rebuilt, although it remains in a dangerous coastal region.

“Given the cultural history of New Orleans, there’s going to be an awful lot of people from around the world that would not want to see Bourbon Street and things like that gone forever,” he said. “The government’s not going to say ‘Thou shalt not build below sea level.'”