Author Talks About Failing Levees in Midwest
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. This month on our program, we've been examining the country's infrastructure. Coming up, we have a report from New Orleans, where one resident has been frustrated for years over the city's potholed streets.
Unidentified New Orleans Resident: You know how you hit the bumps and everything, and it kind of messes up your wheels and your alignment and stuff.
HANSEN: Today there's a new road-repair program, and the Crescent City is using the post-Katrina era as an opportunity to rethink its infrastructure. But first, the devastating floods in the Midwest have turned the country's attention to levees and the infrastructure surrounding America's waterways. John M. Barry is a levee commissioner from New Orleans and author of "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America." We wanted to hear his reaction to the situation upriver.
Mr. JOHN M. BARRY (Levee Commissioner, New Orleans; Author, "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America"): In terms of the actual response, I'm glad to see that something has been learned from Katrina in terms of getting aid to people in need. I think that's gone much better. The other thing is lessons that weren't learned primarily from the '93 flood. There was after that flood a very good White House report, which came out with all sorts of recommendations - almost none of which were followed.
HANSEN: What were some of the recommendations in '93 that weren't followed?
Mr. BARRY: Well, one of the big problems was there was no rational thinking behind the levee system. I mean, around the world people laugh at the standards that the U.S. uses for flood protection. In Holland, they use a 10,000-year standard. They protect against ocean floods for one-in-10,000 chance every single year. And for river floods, they protect anywhere from, depending how populated the area is, from a 250-year standard minimum up to over a 1,000-year standard. And roughly the same standards are used in Japan and other advanced societies. And we're still fighting to reach a 100-year standard. Many of the levees in the upper Midwest were less than a 100-year standard. So the level of investment in the infrastructure just isn't there. No one ever thought through the meaning of what the standard meant.
HANSEN: Given what you're saying, the fact that half of the levees failed in the Midwest, those levees weren't built to handle this kind of flood. And that is even according to the records from the Army Corps of Engineers. I mean, where does the blame lie here?
Mr. BARRY: Well, I guess it's the people who decided to build the levees. You know, levees are reasonably expensive. Obviously, it's more expensive if you build to a higher level of protection. So they don't do it.
HANSEN: What do you think is required from a political standpoint to get some real change to take place? I mean, given that you do work with the Flood Protection Authority there in New Orleans.
Mr. BARRY: There was a flood in 1927, which I wrote about, which was comparable to Katrina. And you had roughly - almost 1 percent of the entire population of the United States was displaced in 1927. And that did have very dramatic changes on what happened. And the government, the federal government, did make a commitment then to flood protection. And those levees that were built after that flood are probably the best levees in the country, and they're built to roughly - no one knows exactly - a 750- to a 1,000-year standard on the lower Mississippi River.
And those levees have not broken since they were built in the 1930s. I mean, the flood walls that failed in Katrina that did not perform as they were supposed to do, they simply collapsed in front of a flood that they were supposed to protect against. They were designed in the Reagan administration, they were completed in 1999. Everything built 30, 40, 50 years ago held. The stuff built most recently in the '90s collapsed. And that really represents a difference in attitude and in the national commitment to infrastructure, in this case levees.
HANSEN: John M. Barry is secretary of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East and author of "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America." He joined us from the studios of Audio Works in New Orleans. Thank you so much.
Mr. BARRY: Thank you very much.