Coast Guardsmen rescue stranded residents from high water during severe flooding around Baton Rouge, LA on Aug. 14, 2016. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Giles. Creative Commons Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Last week at the Southern California ASLA Awards, I had the chance to speak with ASLA national president, Chad Danos. Chad lives in Louisiana and reminded me that thousands of people are still recovering from the 500 year flood that impacted more than 1,000 square miles, flooded more the 60,000 homes, and impacted 7,364 Louisiana businesses. Chad’s daughter’s school campus was not open, as repairs were still being made from the August flooding. In south Louisiana, disruption to daily life from weather events is beginning to feel normalized.
A map of radar-estimated rainfall accumulations across Louisiana between August 9 and 16, 2016; areas shaded in white indicate accumulations in excess of 20 in (510 mm). Graphic: Public Domain
According to CNN Weather, 6.9 trillion gallons (over 21 million acre-feet) of rain fell on the state of Louisiana between August 8th and 14th, 2016. Researchers at the University of California at Davis estimated that California’s 2015 water shortage was 2.5 million acre-feet, which would cost the state $2.7 billion. In six days Louisiana received nearly ten times the amount of water that the California’s Central Valley’s aquifers naturally refill at in a year.
There are many conspiracy theories focused around government controlled climate modification programs such as the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) causing earthquakes and major storms, with worries about significant disruption or harm to human life, natural and economic resources or other assets. Scary as it sounds, significant disruption is happening and it may be time to push for exploration of the use of environmental modifications techniques, through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes, to help us all.
Saying that low-lying and leveed areas of coastal cities are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise is axiomatic. However, planning for and imagining the consequences of predicted sea level rise is a difficult exercise for humans, as our species is prone to cognitive bias that can prevent us from accurately understanding reality and making change (e.g. “The Current Moment Bias,” or the “Status-quo Bias”).
When I was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana pre-Katrina, I never imagined the destruction that hit southern Louisiana even though I was well aware that nearly half the land in New Orleans is situated below sea level. Like most people, I assumed the natural and man-made levees would continue to protect the city from the sea as they had done since the great flood of 1927 .
Living in southern Louisiana post-Katrina and hearing first hand stories of loss and destruction – walking the city and seeing blocks of homes without walls with sand and debris where dining and living rooms were – was a profoundly sad and galvanizing experience. Many urban designers around the globe expressed a desperate desire to provide a design solution to prevent similar future human and environmental tragedy.
The biggest value urban designers can provide is imagining of alternate ways of building, developing workable solutions and seeking political support/funding for implementation of the best ideas. To address flood vulnerability in a neighborhood slow to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, I proposed a strategy of topography building utilizing sediment from routine navigational canal dredging. The project site is located adjacent to the industrial canal, and the 65,000 cubic yards of material needed to construct the entire lock would take the Army Corps of Engineers dredge ship Wheeler only eighteen days to dredge and deliver. Currently, the dredge material is dumped off the coastal shelf of the Gulf of Mexico, because it is the cheapest way to dispose of excess land.
What was difficult to imagine pre-Katrina is clear now: the destruction caused by levee breaks and tidal surge was exacerbated by the loss of protective land, the result of channelization, an inadequate levee system, and imprudent development in low lying areas. With this in mind, it is now more clear what can go wrong in our coastal cities as sea levels rise…except that the looming disaster is still an imagined alternate future, rather than a looming reality.