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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Orleans Flood Risk and Racial Disparity

Air Date: Week of

The Army Corps has run a risk assessment of future flood dangers for each neighborhood in New Orleans. (Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers)

This hurricane season, some residents of New Orleans are feeling a little safer than they did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. New maps released by the Army Corps of Engineers show how recent work has reduced the flood risk in some neighborhoods. But environmental justice activists say the maps show that not all neighborhoods have been treated equally. Host Steve Curwood talks with Nathalie Walker of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, in New Orleans, and then turns to Colonel David Berszeck of the Army Corps of Engineers.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. It's hurricane season again, and some folks in New Orleans are feeling a little safer than they have for a while. But others feel just as vulnerable as ever. That’s because the Army Corps of Engineers has rebuilt some levees that failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina almost two years ago. But not all neighborhoods have gotten equal treatment so far, and protection for African Americans is lagging far behind efforts for whites. The Corps of Engineers recently released maps showing its progress and the current flood risks for New Orleans’ many neighborhoods. In a few minutes, we’ll talk with one of the Corps’ managers for the project. But first, we turn to Nathalie Walker. She’s an attorney and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, in New Orleans. Ms. Walker, hello there.

WALKER: Hello.

CURWOOD: Now when you look at the Army Corp maps as to the risk of hurricane flooding today based on their work, what do you see?

WALKER: What I see is very little improvement overall. And shockingly what I also see is that our communities of color, which in the New Orleans area are African American, are receiving totally insignificant flood reduction.

CURWOOD: So, let’s talk specifically about neighborhoods. We know about Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, what kind of protection have they gotten from the Army Corp of Engineers compared say to other areas such as Lakeview, City Park?

WALKER: Well, if you take a look at Lakeview or if you look at Old Metairie, which is a suburb of New Orleans, both of those areas are getting between 4.5 to 5.5 feet of flood reduction. Which is, you know fairly significant. But when you look at New Orleans East or the Lower Ninth Ward we’re talking six inches to a foot. I mean those are areas that had 12 feet or more of water at one point after the levees broke.

CURWOOD: So, the break down here is racial you are saying?

WALKER: Well, I think so. I don’t know what other conclusion you can draw. When you look at these maps and you see, as everyone is doing, looking at the maps to see where do we have any significant reduction of floodwater, and it’s always in the white neighborhoods.

CURWOOD: Now some people look at these maps and say, “wait a second, there are some white neighborhoods that don’t get any improvement in flood protection.” I’m looking at the maps and I see particularly the area of Chalmette which is largely a white working class neighborhood doesn’t get very much protection either.

The Army Corps has run a risk assessment of future flood dangers for each neighborhood in New Orleans.
(Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers)

WALKER: Yes, but there are other white neighborhoods that do. There are no African American neighborhoods that you can point to that get it.

CURWOOD: Now, the Corps isn’t saying that it’s not going to help these neighborhoods that are still vulnerable. It’s just saying that it’s going to take till 2011 to get to it. What about giving the Army Corps more time?

WALKER: Oh, they can take all the time they want. But there’s no reason why they couldn’t have done significant flood reduction improvements in other areas of the city. The floodgate that they put in on the 17th Street Canal to protect the largely white area of the city wasn’t there before. So why just that neighborhood for this major undertaking? Why not any other neighborhood?

CURWOOD: There have been concerns, questions, maybe even complaints raised about how New Orleans is being redeveloped. Some people are alleging that there’s a move afoot to gentrify New Orleans.

WALKER: Absolutely, there’s simply no question about that. We had 5,000 public housing units that were occupied before Katrina. Virtually all of them have been padlocked, and that includes units that were not damaged from the flooding caused by the Corps of Engineers.

CURWOOD: Now, you say that the Army Corps of Engineers caused this flooding. What do you mean?

WALKER: People need to remember, this is so important, Katrina did not hit the city of New Orleans. It did not. And many of the people who drowned, who lost their lives were still in the city after Katrina passed. And they were celebrating on their front porches when the storm was over. And then the levees broke. It’s the Corps of Engineers that destroyed the city of New Orleans.

CURWOOD: What would you like to see the Army Corps of Engineers do differently now?

WALKER: I think they need to make it clear exactly what their plans are for installing floodgates in all of the other vulnerable areas of the city, not just the 17th Street Canal where they have installed the floodgate. All of the areas that flooded, so many of our African American neighborhoods, and we all know that’s where the flooding came from. They need to be really clear on what they’re going to do for those neighborhoods because to date, they’ve done so very little.

CURWOOD: Nathalie Walker is an attorney and co-director and founder of the Advocates for Environmental and Human Rights in New Orleans. Thank you so much.

WALKER: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Joining us now to respond to some of the concerns raised by Ms. Walker is Lieutenant Colonel David Berszeck. He's a Risk and Reliability Project Manager for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans. Colonel Berszeck, Nathalie Walker says that none of the city’s African American neighborhoods have yet gotten substantial new flood protection. What is the Army Corps’ rationale for the work that's been done so far?

BERSZECK: Steve, the rationale for the work that’s been so far has been, after the storm there were a number of areas that were damaged. The first priority was to restore those areas. And that’s where the work concentrated on and focused on.

CURWOOD: You say this was just a repair but you know brand new flood gates were put in there at the 17th Street Canal. If it was all just about repairing, why did the new floodgates go in the more affluent and more white neighborhood as opposed to say New Orleans East, or other neighborhoods?

BERSZECK: Actually, Steve, that was a function of repairs. With the miles of floodwalls that exist along those three out flow canals: the 17th Street Canal, the London Avenue Canal, and the Orleans Avenue Canal. The mission was to do all the work and to do it fast. And there was no time to go ahead and look at all of those floodwalls along those canals. So the decision was made that rather than trying to bolster or improve roughly 11 to 12 miles of floodwall the decision was made to just block the surge at the mouth of the lake and just eliminate that as a threat.

CURWOOD: I’m sure though that the folks in New Orleans East or the Lower Ninth Ward would like that kind of protection. What was the process here? I mean at the end of the day, effectively none of the African American neighborhoods get substantial flood protection, certainly on the scale of what’s happened in the white neighborhoods. The accusation here is racism. The outcome seems to bare out that accusation. How was the decision made?

BERSZECK: Steve when you say outcome you’re looking at what we presently have today. And that’s not outcome. The outcome right now is that we are continuing work to meet the administration’s commitment to provide 100-year level protection to the entire system and that is work that is ongoing.

CURWOOD: Colonel Berszeck I think it’s fair to say in New Orleans some people still don’t trust the Army Corps. So, what would you say to those people to reassure them about the work the Corps is doing now?

BERSZECK: Steve, I think to reassure those people I think that you can see that we’re using the best science that’s available out there right now to go ahead and design this protection system for the future. And then we are also committed to looking to the coastal restoration solutions and look at other options and alternatives to continue to add to the protection level in the New Orleans area.

CURWOOD: Lieutenant Colonel David Berszeck is a risk and reliability project manager for the Army Corp of Engineers in New Orleans. Thank you so much for taking this time.

BERSZECK: Thank you, Steve, I appreciate being on your show.

CURWOOD: Earlier, we spoke with Nathalie Walker, of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, also in New Orleans. For links to maps and more information about the Army Corps Flood Risk Report, check out our Web site, L-O-E-dot-org.

[Kato Hideki, Ikue Mori & Fred Frith “Loquat Tree” from ‘Death Ambient’ (Tzadik – 1995)]



U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Flood Maps site

Times-Picayune Article on current New Orleans Flood Risk

Times-Picayune Blog on Flood-Risk Assessment


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