Parts of Louisiana not protected by post-Katrina infrastructure catch the brunt of Hurricane Ida, Army engineers tell the Senate.
By Vanessa Montalbano
Pre-disaster prevention in New Orleans — installed in response to Hurricane Katrina — performed as designed during last month’s Hurricane Ida, Army Corps of Engineers representatives told lawmakers Wednesday at a Senate hearing. But, unprotected communities in other parts of Louisiana did not fare as well.
“The stakes cannot be higher,” Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said during the Senate Government and Public Works Committee hearing to evaluate the Corps emergency response to Hurricane Ida. “North Atlantic hurricanes are becoming more intense and more frequent. We need to be more prepared.”
About an hour outside of New Orleans, thousands of people lost their homes as a result of Hurricane Ida and are still living in shelters. Jennifer Armand, executive director of the Bayou Community Foundation, a charity focused on sustaining communities in Lafourche Parish, Terrebonne Parish and Grand Isle, said those shelters are “practically uninhabitable” and “FEMA’s response for correct and effective temporary housing is still not here.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a press release it will provide some immediate sheltering assistance to the most impacted parishes, like in Terrebonne and Lafourche, until its Direct Housing program is fully underway. Those temporary solutions include a “non-congregate sheltering program using recreation vehicles, such as travel trailers.” The Direct Housing program might take months to complete, the release said.
Armand said the housing crisis is pushing many workers to consider moving to another area, where affordable homes are not as limited.
Hurricane Ida made landfall in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, on Aug. 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina, the 2005 storm, caused over 1,800 deaths and cost upwards $125 billion in damages, inundating New Orleans and surrounding areas on Louisiana’s coast. There were over 50 levee and flood wall failures around the city combined with sustained 145 mph winds. It remains one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
In a 2006 federal report, the Corps admitted the flood-control complex around New Orleans had been incomplete, insufficient and improperly maintained. “The hurricane protection system in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana before Katrina was a system in name only,” USACE New Orleans District Commander Col. Stephen Murphy testified.
After Hurricane Katrina, the Corps sought to apply the lessons it learned in the fallout of the storm to prevent future disasters in the city. The $14.5 billion federally funded infrastructure project named the Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction System validated those efforts. The engineering project held strong in New Orleans during Hurricane Ida, which unleashed 172 mph winds on Louisiana, prompted severe flood warnings and caused 29 deaths. About a week after Hurricane Ida, Murphy said, New Orleans was back on its feet.
Hurricane Ida is the seventh costliest hurricane to hit the U.S. in the last 20 years at an estimated $95 billion, Carper said.
“These investments in infrastructure saved money and saved lives,” Carper said. “But, other communities in Louisiana not impacted by the infrastructure were hit hard.”
In Armand’s community, that crucial infrastructure never arrived after Hurricane Katrina’s demolition. Instead, she said, “people who lost everything themselves volunteered to help others” and built their own levee system when “the federal government wouldn’t.”
“That’s what saved us during Ida,” Armand said. “We take care of ourselves, but we are still in desperate need of recovery.”
Murphy said the Corps is working on projects to the west and to the south of New Orleans’ Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction System, in an effort to expand it and deliver the same level of risk reduction to those areas.
“We get hit by a lot of storms down here,” said Ricky Boyett, public affairs office chief for the USACE New Orleans district, in an interview.
With hurricane season still underway, Boyett said the Corps is trying to be as proactive as possible in the region where Armand’s charity works.
“At the start we set up pumps by the levees to get the water out,” he said. “Now we are in the process of demobilizing and taking pumps away.”
USACE will leave some pumps on site before leaving the area so communities are prepared to remove water when another storm hits, which, Boyett said, is likely to happen.
“Our needs, our economies are unique from New Orleans,” Armand said. She estimates her region is about one to two years away from recovery.