Allan Katz and Danae Columbus: High time for Army Corps to re-evaluate flood threats

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Allan Katz and Danae Columbus

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to do a better job of estimating the risks of flooding around the U.S. With the upcoming 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – much of whose destruction was caused by poorly engineered and maintained levees – we naturally think about the heavy losses to our region, what it has taken to rebuild, and all the people who died or have not been able to return.

Metro New Orleans is now relatively lucky. Katrina and other subsequent storms sent a strong message to the federal government that billions must be spent to upgrade the levee system in all our coastal parishes. While many improvements have been made, our federal government’s approach is still to be reactive rather than proactive. Working with Congress, the Army Corps must develop new national flood risk standards to better prepare all communities for the inevitable. As Mark Twain once said, “The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.”

It’s no secret that flooding has gotten worse in many cities and towns across the country regardless of whether homes, schools and businesses are located near the banks of the Mississippi, close to any other waterway or in a landlocked town. Army Corps officials like to say that recent flooding is not an underlying trend but merely reflects a rainy cycle.

The Journal of Earth Science recently released a new study of rivers in mid-western states that found the Army Corps leaves communities unprepared for potential disasters by underestimating modern flood levels.

We have all heard the term “100-year flood”. But what do those words really mean? According to JES study author Robert Criss, a Washington University hydrologist, the hundred year flood measurements are about four and a half feet too low in Hannibal, Missouri; five and a half feet too low in St. Louis; and six feet too low in Omaha. “They (the Corps) are lying to people. They’re saying it’s safe to build when it clearly isn’t,” Criss told In the same interview, Criss said that most levees and flood walls are one to two meters too low in the entire Mississippi river basin.

A report in Geophysical Research Letter, An AGU Journal, suggests that human activities have caused or at least worsened the recent increase in large floods worldwide due in large part to economic development in flood plains. “Flooding itself has physically increased in magnitude and frequency on many rivers,” said author Nicholas Pinter, a geologist at Southern Illinois University. In the Mississippi river basin, changes have taken place gradually that have led to rising waters. Both reports were funded by the National Science Foundation.

For example, wetlands that once covered the Midwest and helped absorb excessive rainfall have been drained or paved over for agriculture or development which has caused runoff to be diverted to local rivers. In an effort to protect towns and farms, levees were built which forced the waters into narrower channels and as a byproduct raised water levels. As an aid to navigation, the Army Corps also built concrete structures such as wing dikes and weirs over the decades that also caused river levels to increase.

Many experts believe that climate change has also brought on more violent storms and more flooding. The Army Corps must take a closer look at climate change when their next review of river risks. The federal government is already getting in step with this new normal. In January, 2015 President Obama signed an executive order that requires enhanced flood protection for federally funded projects.

President Obama could continue to highlight his focus on climate change during his announced visit New Orleans next Thursday. Perhaps he should take a moment to view the government’s multi-billion dollar investment in our levees and consider the moral, ethical and legal obligation the Army Corps of Engineers has to protect all of America’s towns and cities again rising water. Our government should act more like the government of Netherlands and make a long-term investment in flood protection before another Hurricane Katrina hits New York, Miami or Charleston and floods the country’s interior as well.


Any list of New Orleanians who played a leadership role in the city’s resurrection would be incomplete without Doug Thornton. Thornton had the vision to dream and the moxie to execute the rebuilding of the Louisiana Superdome right after Hurricane Katrina. The reopened Dome was a strong symbol that New Orleans would come back. Thornton is being honored tonight at the Hyatt by St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Tickets ($150) are still available by contacting

Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several television programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

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