Navy rescue helicopter flies over flooded New Orleans neighborhood
Sixty percent of New Orleans was flooded as weakened levees broke, creating a disaster of Biblical proportions. Photo credit: US Navy/AP.

Towards a Greater New Orleans

Reconstructing the 'Big Easy' needs to not only consider future storms and rising sea levels but also electric transportation

By Chris Ellis

This article was stimulated by reading two items concerning the rebuilding of New Orleans which Bill Moore had linked to EV World, plus Bill's blog on the subject. As I have a degree in Civil Engineering and once worked at the world-renowned Laboratorium voor Grondmechanica in Delft, the Netherlands, I decided to offer a top-down, systems engineer's perspective. In other words, apply some hybrid engineering to the problem. You may already be wondering what this has to do with EV World. However, as you will see, electric vehicles are key to the proposed solution.

The article New Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize' by George Friedman makes several important points. The first is that the US simply has no choice but to maintain the scale and location of the port of New Orleans. That then dictates that there needs to be accessible, affordable and safe housing and other amenities available for large numbers of port workers and their families. To quote George, 'New Orleans is not optional for the United States commercial infrastructure. It is a terrible place for a city to be located, but exactly the place where a city must exist.' However, George seems to be assuming that accessibility necessitates proximity. This is not necessarily so, as this article will argue in more detail.

Now take a look at 'Suckers Bets for the New Century' by Bill McKibben. His key point is that the threat from hurricanes and other forms of violent weather will only increase. Bill suggests the city of New Orleans will probably be rebuilt, but it won't be rebuilt a second time, because similar catastrophes will have become more frequent, more widespread and more demanding of federal resources.

Bill Moore suggested 'Rebuilding New Orleans into the Venice of the Gulf' in a recent blog. However, there are several key differences between Venice and New Orleans. The population of Venice has already shrunk to less than 40,000, hardly now a city by some standards. The center of Venice is a global cultural icon, with 15 million tourists a year. When necessary (not 'If', it's inevitable), a second line of defense will be built around the inner city, probably a giant coffer dam enclosing less than a square mile. The rest of the town will then be allowed to slip beneath the sea. Homes will easily be found in glorious Tuscany and elsewhere for the 30,000 or so who will chose to leave.

New Orleans is on quite a different scale. George Friedman seems to take the view that port workers and the workers that will be needed to support them should be paid a risk premium, and there's an end to it. To quote George again - 'As in Iraq, premiums will be paid to people prepared to endure the hardships of working in New Orleans. But in the end, the city will return because it has to'. In other words, good old market forces (alone?) will sort it out. Of course, that could well be true, but the cost, in both lives and dollars, could be even higher next time. Remember that New Orleans suffered 'only' a near miss, with the storm center striking to the east.

A startling example of the full capability of a class 5 hurricane was what happened to one of the most affluent areas of Gulfport, located just above sea level but close to the beach. All except one of the expensive houses have been smashed to matchwood. The exception, a recently built anti-bellum style mansion, has its upper floors still intact and undisturbed, supported by several massive pillars. But the ground floor has been completely swept away, walls and all. This time, New Orleans didn't take a direct hit, Gulfport did. Imagine what would have happened to the old or future New Orleans if the next big one hits dead center. Yes, a dead center.

I believe the US will not be prepared to pay what it will take to protect the total coastal region against 20 foot storm surges backed by the sea level changes that are likely by 2100. It would be irresponsible to plan for anything with a shorter effective life. I am proposing that the majority of the population are located well inland, on ground that is already more than sufficiently high. It is a cheaper, safer, approach, taking full advantage of 21st century technology, rather than trying to fight nature in a battle we will eventually lose.

I buy George Friedman's argument for the re-establishment of the PORT of New Orleans, but NOT his claim that this dictates the re-occupation of most of the sub-sea-level conurbation. We can already move (European and Japanese) workers over eighty miles in less than half an hour, by high-speed train. If we measure the new conurbation in terms of time rather than distance, surely it will be possible to put most port workers' homes well above sea level yet within an acceptable commute of the relatively few stations required to serve the port facilities and the protected remains of the old town? Surely the right place to spend the operational cost premium is on worker transport infrastructure, not on encouraging them and their families to remain in harm's way? Given the money (apparently immediately forthcoming) and some special legislation needed to force the rights of way (given the circumstances, eminent domain may be enough already), the Corps of Engineers could have the first tracks laid within a year. Then watch the houses, shops, etc, follow. Now wouldn't that be a demonstration of the 'Can Do' spirit? And result in a 'Greater New Orleans' metropolis that would be an example to the rest of the world?

To be clear, the proposed solution is as follows. The old heart of New Orleans, which is mainly above sea level, should be ringed by a massive coffer dam capable of surviving a direct hit from a category 5 storm surge. The port of New Orleans should have similar sea defenses, with the same objective. The rest of New Orleans should be cleared and further building forbidden. Well inland and at least 100 feet above sea level, several new satellite towns should be created for those citizens of New Orleans who wish to return to the area. Priority should be given to the families of port workers who will have put up with all the risks and inconvenience over the next couple of years of living in temporary accommodation close to the port. The satellite towns should be linked to the port, the old town, each other and Houston, Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Atlanta, etc, by trains capable of cruising at 200 mph or more. A town 70 miles from the port may be less than half an hour away by high speed train.

For more on the already available 21st century EV technology which makes this solution practical, and the infrastructure it needs, see: www.o-keating.com/hsr/tgv.htm

However, the most important step is to ensure that a 'master plan' is agreed quickly at the state and federal levels, is widely publicized and is supplied with committed, ring-fenced, funding. This will then allow the citizens of New Orleans to decide, soon, whether or not they wish to return to Greater New Orleans, and when. Only then will the other communities really know how much they need to expand, and what resources they will need. As George Friedman points out...

'It is possible to jury-rig around this problem for a short time. But the fact is that those who have left the area have gone to live with relatives and friends. Those who had the ability to leave also had networks of relationships and resources to manage their exile. But those resources are not infinite -- and as it becomes apparent that these people will not be returning to New Orleans any time soon, they will be enrolling their children in new schools, finding new jobs, finding new accommodations. If they have any insurance money coming, they will collect it. If they have none, then -- whatever emotional connections they may have to their home -- their economic connection to it has been severed. In a very short time, these people will be making decisions that will start to reshape population and workforce patterns in the region.'

Ideally, we need a solution that will appeal to key workers and ensure they remain 'loyal' to New Orleans through the next couple of years, with the prospect of genuine safety and comfort for their families both now and later in their own new homes in an environment better than the one they left a few days ago. This proposal can deliver it, if the federal government wants to redeem itself. Does it?

For further discussion on the rebuilding of New Orleans, read "How far should U.S. go in making New Orleans whole?

Designated U.S. Highspeed Rail Corridors [map].

Times Article Viewed: 6318
Published: 09-Sep-2005


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