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Katrina's Aftermath

A Barrier That Could Have Been

Congress OKd a project to protect New Orleans 40 years ago, but an environmentalist suit halted it. Some say it could have worked.

September 09, 2005|Ralph Vartabedian and Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

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."

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