New Orleans safer with rebuilt levees, floodwalls but more work needed


Resident hurricane expert Dan Kottlowski sits down with Brittany Boyer to discuss the outlook of storms Laura and Marco on Aug. 24.


NEW ORLEANS — Fifteen years ago this week, a Coast Guard helicopter pulled Webster Rainy from his niece’s rooftop in the Lower 9th Ward as floodwaters swallowed his neighbors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. 

On Monday, Rainy, 68, calmly cleaned his car and smoked through a pack of Kools, undaunted by the prospect of two storms — one nearly broken up by unfavorable conditions, the other a growing, unpredictable tropical storm — headed in his general direction. 

“I feel safer in the 9th Ward than anywhere else,” Rainy said in front of his home just two blocks from where floodwalls failed in 2005, sending water into the neighborhood. “It’ll take more than water to break through those walls now.”

Webster Rainy, 68, was rescued by helicopter from a rooftop in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He’s not evacuating for storms Laura or Marco, saying he’s more confident in nearby levees and floodwalls. (Photo: Rick Jervis)

New Orleanians on Saturday will observe the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that unleashed deadly floods throughout the city after manmade levees and floodwalls failed. More than 1,800 people died along the Gulf Coast, many of whom drowned in the Lower 9th Ward. Images of residents being rescued from rooftops became searing reminders of the storm’s cataclysmic aftermath, and the lack of local preparation and national response. 

After Katrina, Congress approved nearly $15 billion in projects to protect the greater New Orleans region, including massive floodgates, storm surge barriers, rebuilt floodwalls and re-armored levees, and a mammoth pump station designed to carry massive amounts of water away from homes and into wetlands.

The system is designed to resist surge from a 100-year storm, one with a 1{d93457022679712214ff8a8035fa266341f9634f2c93d5e609b1bbb089e8c446} chance of forming in any given year. It has eased the nerves of residents who remember the chaos and death of Katrina.  

Though the system offers greater protection than the flawed levees and floodwalls that guarded the city before Katrina, the area still needs better protection, given rising sea levels and vanishing wetlands that act as speed bumps against storm surge, said Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law & Policy. 

The region needs at least a 300- to 500-year storm protection system to stand a chance against rising seas and stronger, more punishing storms, he said. 

“The system is not evolving to keep pace with evolving risk,” Davis said. 

Monday, New Orleans received a reprieve when Marco, one of the storms headed its way, largely disintegrated as it neared the coast. The other, Laura, was about to enter the Gulf of Mexico and was forecast to make landfall somewhere near the Texas-Louisiana border, far enough away not to menace the city.

City officials voiced relief about being out of forecasters’ “cone of probability” for both storms but cautioned residents not to let their guard down. Laura still has miles of warm waters in the gulf to travel over. 

“Just because we’re out of the cone, doesn’t mean we can’t be significantly impacted,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said at a news conference. “Do not let up.” 

Residents, anxious about a double-hurricane wallop just hours before, awoke Monday to blue skies and a calming breeze. Most of the French Quarter remained as closed as it has been under the coronavirus pandemic, though business owners, residents and visitors milled about, mostly unconcerned with the offshore storms. 

At Cafe du Monde, a four-piece brass band entertained morning diners at the iconic beignet eatery. Revert “Peanut” Andrews, the group’s trombonist and a well-known musician in town, said he evacuated from his 9th Ward home during Katrina. It took him years to return to the city. Today he lives in Uptown, a neighborhood that didn’t flood as badly after Katrina.

His confidence in the city’s hurricane protection system has risen over the years, he said, though he still believes New Orleans could be blindsided by a major storm. He’s sticking around for Marco and Laura. 

“I’m quite sure it’ll happen again,” Andrews said, “but I don’t think it’ll be as bad.”

Cliff Ocheltree, 70, rode out Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac from his second-story French Quarter apartment, all without incident. On Monday, he fiddled with a crossword puzzle on his balcony overlooking Ursulines Avenue. He had prepared for Marco and Laura, he said, by restocking the rows of water, Gatorade and breakfast bars in his hurricane closet. 

“Katrina was not a storm issue. It was a levee failure issue,” he said. “And there’s been a lot of work done on that.”

Much of that work consisted of armoring levees with concrete, including those that failed in Katrina’s wake. But hurricane preparation and response still must be carefully coordinated between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, meteorologists and local and state officials, said Bob Jacobsen, a consultant and engineer who has reviewed the flood protection system.

If a similarly-sized storm as Katrina hit the city today, the complex system of levees and flood walls would likely hold, he said. But the system is designed largely to protect property — not lives — and to keep flood insurance premiums down. A direct hit on New Orleans by a large storm could still cause widespread deaths if the most vulnerable parts of the city are not evacuated, Jacobsen said. 

“It’s like having a sprinkler system in a building,” he said. “You’re supposed to evacuate, not sit around watching the building burn.”


New Orleans residents and visitors prepared for a lot of rain and possible power outages as Marco, which became a hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico Sunday, approaches. Tropical Storm Laura is also headed toward the same part of the U.S. coast. (Aug. 23)

AP Domestic

In the Lower 9th Ward, one of the neighborhoods devastated by the flooding after Katrina, residents biked around or lounged on porches, blocks away from where a floodwall collapsed and inundated the neighborhood 15 years ago. 

Rainy said he remembers wading through chest-high water after Hurricane Betsy flooded the neighborhood in 1965. He’s survived Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac here, too. He’s seen the teams of workers strengthen the nearby levees and floodwalls after Katrina. This is the most confident he’s ever been in the neighborhood.

Still, if a Category 3 or 4 hurricane aims at New Orleans, he won’t stick around to see if everything works. “Been there, done that,” he said. “We’ll be ready to go.”

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.

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