The story of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina illustrates both the perils of federal government inattention to aging and inadequate water infrastructure and the promise of federal investment when it does materialize.
As Americans know all too well now, ten years following Katrina, New Orleans’s poorly maintained levees were inadequate to protect the city from the storm. Their breach caused death and damage to property at historic levels. As we have reported before, coastal cities like New Orleans have long suffered from old and inadequately maintained storm protection infrastructure – including storm levees, surge barriers, and pumping stations – and declining federal assistance in this area in recent decades has left those cities especially vulnerable to failure. As a result of inadequate investment in this type of infrastructure, what happened in New Orleans a decade ago could unfortunately happen in any America coastal city today.
The federal government did respond to the crisis in New Orleans following Katrina, and the progress that has been made rebuilding the city offers an example of how federal funding of water infrastructure projects can help. Reuters recently profiled the Gentilly section of New Orleans, reporting on the contrast between the community’s condition a decade ago, after Katrina-caused floods filled tens of thousands of homes with water, and today, when more than 80 percent of the neighborhood’s homes and other buildings have been renovated or rebuilt and work is in progress on the rest. Billions of dollars of work in neighborhoods like Gentilly has been carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since Katrina struck, including the construction of a massive surge barrier east of the city, the reinforcement of more than 350 miles of levees and the replacement or upgrade of 70 pumping stations. The Corps also built its largest flood barrier to date in the area, a nearly two-mile long concrete wall extending across the intersection of three major waterways that connect to the Gulf of Mexico. This work was funded by Congressional authorizations totaling more than $14 billion to fortify existing flood protection infrastructure and to build more.
The rebuilding of New Orleans is an example of the key role that the federal government can play in restoring not just the physical infrastructure of a city’s water systems, but the confidence that residents have in their community’s future. But it is a tragedy that Congress didn’t act to assist New Orleans before Katrina struck – had the right attention been paid and the proper amount of funding allocated to storm protection infrastructure in the first place, thousands of lives and billions of dollars worth of damage to property could have been saved. We have long advocated a larger and more active federal financing role in water infrastructure improvements, and New Orleans demonstrates why. It shouldn’t take a tragic storm like Katrina to get Congressional attention; communities all over the country are experiencing near-crisis levels of water infrastructure decay and deterioration (New Orleans itself, even following the expenditure of billions in recovery grants, still loses an estimated 90 million gallons of drinking water every day due to leaking pipes), and federal funding is desperately needed to address those crises too.