In the wake of Hurricane Betsy 40 years ago, Congress approved a massive hurricane barrier to protect New Orleans from storm surges that could inundate the city.
But the project, signed into law by President Johnson, was derailed in 1977 by an environmental lawsuit. Now the question is: Could that barrier have protected New Orleans from the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina?
“If we had built the barriers, New Orleans would not be flooded,” said Joseph Towers, the retired chief counsel for the Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans district.
Tower’s view is endorsed by a former key senator, along with academic experts, who say a hurricane barrier is the only way to control the powerful storm surges that enter Lake Pontchartrain and threaten the city. Other experts are less sure, saying the barrier would have been no match for Katrina.
The project was stopped in its tracks when an environmental lawsuit won a federal injunction on the grounds that the Army’s environmental impact statement was flawed. By the mid-1980s, the Corps of Engineers abandoned the project.
The project faced formidable opposition not only from environmentalists but from regional government officials outside of New Orleans who argued that the barriers would choke commerce and harm marine life in ecologically sensitive Lake Pontchartrain.
The barrier would have protected New Orleans from storm surges barreling into the lake through two narrow passages -- the Rigolets and the Chef Menteur Pass.
During Hurricane Katrina, the lake -- swollen 12 feet -- was slammed by 135 mph winds against the city’s storm walls and levees. The barriers failed in five places and the city was flooded. On the city’s eastern flank, the surge approached the city through a network of canals from Lake Borgne, which was also swollen and raging.
After the damage caused by Betsy, a Category 2 hurricane when it hit the Louisiana coast in 1965, the Army Corps of Engineers designed and began clearing sites for the so-called Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Barrier Project. It required miles of levees and two massive storm gates that could close off the Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass if a hurricane was approaching.
Although the largely forgotten project has been moribund for more than two decades, it has attracted renewed interest and regained credibility since Katrina left about 80% of New Orleans underwater.
J. Bennett Johnston, a former powerful Democratic senator from Louisiana and now a lobbyist in Washington, is working on Capitol Hill to resurrect the barrier.
“It ought to be part of the deal,” he said. “It would have prevented the huge storm tide that came into Lake Pontchartrain.”
The barrier would have run from a point near the Mississippi state line, known as Apple Pie Ridge, southwest across the marshlands all the way to the main levees of the Mississippi River, roughly 25 miles. Most of the barrier would have consisted of levees, roughly 9 feet to 14 feet high. In addition, two massive control structures were to be placed on the inlets to Lake Pontchartrain.
The Rigolets, the larger of the two inlets, would have required an 800-foot-long structure with floodgates and a massive locks that could close if a hurricane or other storm surge were approaching the coast.
Similar floodgates protect the Netherlands from North Sea surges.
Towers, the corps’ former chief counsel, said the project was estimated to cost $85 million in 1965, or just over $500 million, adjusted for inflation. Estimates of the costs of Katrina’s damage and reconstruction exceed $100 billion.
The project was stopped on Dec. 30, 1977, by U.S. District Judge Charles Schwartz Jr., who said the corps’ environmental impact statement had failed to satisfy federal environmental laws.
Schwartz ruled that the region “would be irreparably harmed” if the barrier project was allowed to continue. He chastised the Army for its inadequate environmental impact statement, which was based in part on a single biologist who never submitted a written report.
Towers conceded that the plan was inadequate by today’s standards, but noted that the battle began not long after the National Environmental Policy Act was signed in 1970 and before much of the case law involving the act was set.
The project faced strong opposition from the environmental group Save Our Wetlands, fishermen and the St. Tammany Parish, just north of Lake Pontchartrain, which had hoped to see a large shipyard built on a bayou. The shipyard was never built; today the area is underwater.
The crux of the suit was that the control structures would sharply reduce the natural flow of ocean water into the lake, damaging shellfish and other aquatic life. Opponents were convinced that the barriers would cause an environmental disaster. They said it would drain the wetlands, leaving it “extremely susceptible to hurricane tidal surges.”
“And once a hurricane hits and floods these low-lying areas, it’s the taxpayers who have to pay for the disaster loans,” Save the Wetlands said a few years ago.
The principal members of the environmental group, several of whom lived in the flooded areas of the city, could not be reached for comment.
The corps never appealed the injunction and it formally dropped the plan in 1986. But Towers, who is retired and lives in Long Beach, said in a recent interview that he still believed the plan was sound.
“My feeling was that saving human lives was more important than saving a percentage of shrimp and crab in Lake Pontchartrain,” Towers said. “I told my staff at the time that this judge had condemned the city. Some people said I was being a little dramatic.”
Since the 1960s, the corps has become more sensitive to the concerns of environmental objections to its projects.
In part, the changes have been forced by litigation the corps has faced.
The Save Our Wetlands website says that it “has been involved in countless lawsuits, many of them against the Army Corps of Engineers to block public works projects.”
After the corps dropped its project, Congress opted to raise hundreds of miles of levees in New Orleans to withstand a storm surge entering Lake Pontchartrain. Johnston, as well as others, said the original barrier plan would have been more effective and cheaper than the subsequent plan.
The levee-raising plan cost more than $1 billion, though it was never designed to handle anything greater than a Category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 4 when it slammed into Louisiana.
Stephen Baig, who heads the storm surge team at the National Hurricane Center, estimated that Katrina pushed a 27-foot surge at its eye near Bay St. Louis and raised Lake Pontchartrain by 12 to 13 feet.
It created a rotating seiche, a type of whirlpool, that took days to subside.
The barrier designed after Hurricane Betsy could have been topped by a storm surge, but it would have still lessened the impact of any surge into the lake and reduced the effects on the city’s levee system.
But some experts say they are not sure it would have prevented the current disaster.
Al Naomi, a senior project manager for the corps, said the levees and control structures in the post-1965 plan were not big enough to control a surge and protect the city.
But the corps is preparing to resurrect the project with bigger levees and a more environmentally friendly control structure.
“We can design a barrier to both protect human life and protect the environment,” Naomi said. “It is technically feasible. All we need is the authorization and the funding.”
Before Katrina, however, the corps could not get $8 million to study the project. It will almost certainly receive the funding now.
Katrina did shed light on the vulnerability of New Orleans to the surges that can enter its complex network of canals and marshes from the Gulf of Mexico.
A computer simulation of the hurricane that will be unveiled today is expected to show that Katrina caused a surge of water of up to 15 feet on the city’s eastern flank and up to 10 feet on Lake Pontchartrain’s south shore with accompanying waves that raised the water level several more feet.
Johannes Westerink, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Notre Dame who co-developed the computer program, said that based on the latest simulation, the system proposed after Betsy would have been an “effective barrier” against the surge from Hurricane Katrina.
“It would have stopped that,” he said.
In the aftermath of Betsy, federal officials promised better protection in the future.
“This nation grieves for its neighbors in Louisiana; but this state will build its way out of its sorrow,” said President Johnson a few days after the storm.
“And the national government will be at Louisiana’s side to help every step of the way.”