Ryszard A. Daniel, a Dutch expert on water management structures, narrates his experience of reviewing flood protection gates designed in the USA after Hurricane Katrina.
Who does not know the title of this story? Most of us, at least from my baby boomer generation, are familiar with the beginning of the song The House of the Rising Sun by the English band The Animals. Yet, there was a time when this song had an additional meaning for me. It was nearly an anthem.
To understand this, you need to place yourself in a country behind the former Iron Curtain in Europe in the mid-60s. We were high school kids in Katowice, a boring industrial city in Poland. And then one day, all of a sudden, the news broke that The Animals were coming to give a concert in our sports hall. We could not believe it at first. The ‘real’ Animals here? In this dull coal miners’ and steel workers’ Polish town?
Well, it was true. I was too late to buy a ticket. So, weeks after the event I belonged to those who listened to the stories of the lucky ones who had been there. It was a legendary concert. The rhythm-and-blues group came, installed their electric instruments, mighty amplifiers and so on – and then it happened. First the bass guitar opening, then Alan Price’s keyboards (which we then called ‘organ’), and then Eric Burdon’s vocals:
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the rising sun.
And it’s been the ruin of many poor boys
And God I know I’m one.
Just like that. In the middle of what many used to call the communist Eastern Europe. Not one of the young audience probably knew what these words were about, but everybody was in ecstasy. The police had trouble keeping the crowd under control. Stories about this concert were told with great passion even months and years afterwards.
To this day, I regret not attending the concert. There are probably more people who, when becoming old, look back at their lives and list things that they would have done differently if they got a chance to go back in time. This is definitely one of the items in my list.
Back to New Orleans
More than 40 years after the concert, my plane landed in Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was business that brought me to New Orleans – an invitation to provide consulting services for the American colleague engineers who were designing the system of flood protection barriers for the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The US Army Corps of Engineers officially called it the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, probably to avoid the illusion that it would ‘protect’ the city once and for all. This is not possible in delta regions, not even in the Mississippi River Delta in the United States.
My consulting services concerned Louisiana’s Inner Harbour Navigation Canal (IHNC) Lake Borgne Surge Barrier. A long name, just as the barrier itself, which is more than 3 km long, and the first and most essential part of the new flood protection system. It was to be constructed at the place where the Katrina floodwaters first entered the city on August 29, 2005. This happened from the side of Lake Borgne, east of the city. The other large lake, Lake Pontchartrain, is a closed water basin and started flooding after it received seawaters through the wetlands and broken levees in the east. The depths of floodwater in the main parts of the city varied from 2 feet to over 10 feet. These are the depths of standing water – wave heights not included.
One can also notice that the levees in the east form a sort of a ‘funnel’. Such layouts tend to increase the height of incoming waves. A simple explanation of this is that these waves go through a gradually decreasing width, so the only way to preserve their energy is when the waves grow higher. Yes, it is the energy conservation law that says ‘hello’ here.
This funnel phenomenon is something that engineers in the Netherlands are very familiar with. Our whole country lies in a ‘funnel’ when the storms push seawaters from the north into the narrows of the English Channel. As I write this story, we have just commemorated the 70th anniversary of the great deluge in the Netherlands’ province of Zeeland as a result of such a storm. That deluge triggered a series of large-scale coast protection projects, called Delta Plan, that brought the security of all Dutch coastal provinces to the desired level. It also generated much expertise, which might have prompted the American engineers to let us contribute to the projects in New Orleans. This is how a number of Dutch consultants, including me, were put on the plane to New Orleans those days.
It was already nearly four years after the disaster that I arrived there. So the damage caused by Katrina had largely been cleaned up. This does not mean that the city recovered from it; recoveries from such calamities take decades. New Orleans seemed half-empty. Okay, the Louis Armstrong’s statue in the airport hall still attracted the tourists’ eyes and you could again have a Cajun meal with live music on the Mississippi River bank, but it did not feel quite comfortable. It lacked joyful crowds. It somehow felt … cripple. Certainly not the way ‘Big Easy’ – as the Americans call New Orleans – ought to feel.
The wounds inflicted by Katrina were also visible on the city’s buildings and streets. It is known, for example, for masonry it usually takes a few years to dry from flood waters before plaster can be applied. The walls of many buildings in New Orleans still waited for their turn. Some of them still bore traces of the flood water levels of Katrina. Some others were wrecked and put up for sale.
Pages of struggle
I walked the streets and could not get the words ‘There is a house in New Orleans’ out of my mind. Yes, there was a house – and it was not even expensive. No inhabitants anymore, so free to move in if one did not mind the moisture. A house that once burst with happiness, love, sorrow, work … life. There were signs that some life was coming back, like the pink-plastered front wall I saw. Maybe it had just dried. Maybe it was on the side of ‘the rising sun’. It was cloudy, I could not see.
My mother was a tailor,
Sewed my new blue jeans.
My father was a gamblin’ man.
Down in New Orleans.
I found myself near the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. A poster by the entrance welcomed visitors to the exhibition ‘Rebuild. Restore. New Orleans’. These were still the years that you didn’t need to buy tickets online, so I bought one at the entrance, had an inspiring talk with the lady behind the counter and began my tour through the showrooms. There were only a few other visitors.
What a fascinating history and what a wealth of culture. In Europe, we usually associate the United States with business, consumption, impressive technology, oversized everything and the dynamism of the east and west coast states. This was quite a different picture. Yes, there is place for joy, relaxation and pleasure in the culture of the American South, the ‘Big Easy’ in particular, but there are also pages of struggle, hard work and suffering. An exciting history.
I am not going to show here the dramatic, often staggering pictures of suffering that Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans. There are enough of them on the internet. I also feel that exposing such pictures – especially when they refer to recent tragedies – violates the dignity of those who suffered and the memory of those who died. Yet, the visit to the Ogden Museum made me aware that Katrina was not the first disastrous flooding that hit the region. The previous great deluge took place in 1927. Back then, the floodwater did not come from the Gulf of Mexico but from the Mississippi River. It is now nearly a century ago, so including one picture will not harm anybody’s feelings.
That flood and the loss that it caused in terms of lives and property damage created the awareness of inundation risk for the whole region. The US Army Corps of Engineers was called upon to tame the river. There were even precautions taken to assign the areas that would take the excessive flows over in case of another flooding – the actions that remind me of the so-called ‘Room for the River’ policy in the Netherlands of today. The flood was also an inspiration for a number of blues songs.
But what it did not do was keep the business down. Big business. The crude oil deposits in the Gulf of Mexico soon made New Orleans one of the largest port regions for the country’s oil refining and petrochemical industry. And this required open access for large tankers, oil rig carriers and other deep-going vessels. So, an extensive dredging began in the marshlands of the Mississippi Delta.
On the other hand, canalising of the Upper Mississippi River (over 1,000 km from Minneapolis to St. Louis), initiated in the 1930s, reduced the risk of flooding but it also deprived the delta of the sediment that had been carried down by the river before. So, New Orleans became less vulnerable to the mighty Mississippi, but it further exposed itself to the waters of the sea. It became a sinking city.
Where did I hear this story before? I asked myself when studying the backgrounds of the Katrina disaster. Oh yes, there are similar stories of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Delta in Bangladesh, the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, the Nile River Delta in Egypt and a number of other delta regions. Economy often wins over safety. Especially when big businesses step in, like the oil industry, energy generation, heavy navigation and intensive agriculture. And don’t believe those who associate this with the so-called developing countries. It can be traced everywhere.
Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk.
And the only time he’ll be satisfied
Is when he’s all a-drunk.
How could one help?
It soon appeared that I was not the only Dutch engineer in New Orleans at that time. The Dutch are known for their expertise with land defence against water, so there were already more fellow countrymen of mine working on various projects in the city. My work included consulting services and design reviews. It was focused on the movable closures in the Inner Harbour Navigation Canal Barrier. The whole barrier had two main purposes: it had to be high and strong enough to sustain the pressure of flood waters that might come in again from Lake Borgne. And it had to flatten the tip of the ‘funnel’ not to let the incoming waves grow too high.
At the same time, however, the barrier had to provide two navigation accesses – one for large ships on the so-called Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, and one for smaller fishing and pleasure vessels on the river arm called Bayou Bienvenue. Americans have the habit of abbreviating everything, so we called the first opening the GIWW gate (two gates to be precise in case one went out of service), and we called the second opening the BB gate. The design of these two gates was where I could contribute, considering my experience with similar storm surge gate projects in the Netherlands.
Gates that must hold large masses of water driven either by nature (like flood and tide gates) or by humans (like lock gates) are what I have been working on for many years. So I felt myself immediately in my comfort zone with these projects. The work went fast and smoothly, everybody was aware of the urgency to deliver a reliable system of flood protection structures for the city. This is – whether you like it or not – how it works in such projects. The public and political support for them is great after the disaster and it gradually decreases as time passes.
Today, both the GIWW gate and the BB gate represent what we call the ‘proven technology’ in the USA, but with a number of innovations based on the Dutch experience. I will resist the temptation to go into the details about it, this story is not a technical report, but it was quite satisfying to convince our American colleague engineers to apply such innovations. Yes, when it comes to water then the engineers from my small Hobbit country, the Netherlands, can be very helpful.
But this coin has two sides. The other side is that I have also learned something from the American colleagues. One of these lessons was not to rely too much on theoretical results, anyway not at the cost of their practical verification. An example: our practice in the Netherlands is to design sea water defence barriers for a once-in-10,000-year storm. Our US colleagues do it for a once-in-100-year storm. However, this does not necessarily mean that their defence systems are less reliable. The clue is that they put more effort to develop well-designed, thoroughly tested and frequently exercised defence and rescue actions for when the disaster happens.
Okay, one can find reasons for both practices, like the potentially higher consequences of sea intrusion in the Netherlands, where a large part of the country lies under sea level. Yet, the big difference between the two normative storms remains remarkable. I think it also reflects some cultural difference. The Americans rely more on human control, while the Dutch rely more on statistics. This is an issue for a deeper discussion that does not fit this story, but it is interesting.
Anyway, I felt attracted to this American approach. Attracted despite the fact that many aspects of this ‘human control’ actually went wrong when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. This is very well discussed by Douglas Brinkley in his book The Great Deluge. I bought this book at the airport and I read it in the evenings in my hotel room, after a day’s work and a Cajun meal in an eatery along the Mississippi River.
Yes, humans are fallible. To begin with, there was a lot wrong with the design and technical condition of the levees that were supposed to keep the floodwater away. But, above all, most of the existing regulations, emergency management plans, division of duties, means of transportation, evacuation plans and so on did not work properly. They appeared to offer little more than a fictitious safety when the hurricane made landfall. This despite the fact that various emergency and rescue activities had been physically exercised even shortly before that landfall.
Oh mother, tell your children,
Not to do what I have done.
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the house of Rising Sun.
It was sad, sometimes even disgusting to read about these failures. Life losses that could have been avoided, police and other people on public duty escaping from the town, bureaucratic indolence, authorities unaware of what was going on, gangs of rovers and looters, city mayor who holes up in a five-star hotel. But there was another side too. Spontaneous self-help by local communities, heroic rescue deeds by many individuals, actions by the US Coast Guard that saved many lives – just to name a few. Dramatic events like this make the ugliness and the beauty in humans come to light.
I went to the New Orleans Superdome, a great multi-discipline sports hall that gave shelter of last resort to the thousands of people who refused or had no chance to evacuate when Hurricane Katrina struck the city. It was a hell there in those days, as described in Douglas Brinkley’s book. Well, There was a house in New Orleans for those people, but what kind of house? I was walking around, trying to get a glimpse of the feeling of those days in the Superdome. Not too much of course – one also needs to keep a distance; sharp details can be quite painful when pictured in mind.
There was nothing that reminded one of the horror of the late summer 2005, like the shortage of basic hygiene items, people being robbed and raped by gangs, and navy snipers shooting at the looters from the roof. The Superdome was cleaned and painted, all damage already repaired, posters with photos of the New Orleans Hornets’ basketball stars hanging all over the place. Now they are no ‘Hornets’ but ‘Pelicans’ – nice name. No scratch or other remnant from Hurricane Katrina anymore. As if the city liked to wipe out every mark of those days.
This did not surprise me. Shortly after a disaster, people do not like to think about it – all they want is to forget. A desire to commemorate it, to work out the traumas comes later – much later. Some say that it never comes to the ones who suffered the most.
Well, now one foot on the platform,
The other on the train.
I’m going back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain.
No, it was not as dramatic as in The House of the Rising Sun. It wasn’t dramatic at all. I went back to New Orleans two years later, in September 2011, for a conference of PIANC, the World Association for Waterborne Infrastructure. I had two presentations there, both about the technology of hydraulic gates, like the two closures in the IHNC Canal.
The city had almost entirely recovered from the hurricane. The streets of the French Quarter, that had still looked empty two years earlier, were now bustling with life. In the evenings, crowds of tourists were walking these streets, peeking through the windows of restaurants with live music, tattoo shops and stores with fancy things. Most of these people were white. The blacks seemed to have disappeared, except for some very specific groups like the musicians.
It was only when I went home from this second trip to New Orleans that I suddenly wanted to know what The House of the Rising Sun really had been and where exactly it had stood in the city. I could not forgive myself that I had not looked for it when being there. I googled this name on my laptop. What I expected was of course something legendary, nearly heroic, rooted in the culture of black Americans, a place of suffering, perhaps struggle. Anyway, something that would add glory to the anthem role that this song played for me and my school friends in our young years.
It wasn’t easy to trace – and when I did, it wasn’t easy to accept. There appeared to be two different versions. One pointed to a women’s prison. The other one, stronger and supported by historians, pointed to a brothel. Some one-and-a-half centuries ago, the phrase House of the Rising Sun was a neat name for a brothel. In addition, there was indeed a brothel in the city at that time, run by madam Marianne Le Soleil Levant, whose name translates from French as ‘The Rising Sun’.
So, not exactly a glorious origin. It took me some time to swallow this pill. But well, let us not judge it. Life is a broad and impenetrable thing. Like the Mississippi River in New Orleans. When I looked at this river, it was so mighty and at the same time so peaceful! I could not resist thinking of the title of Mikhail Sholokhov’s book And Quiet Flows the Don. I wish, whole countries – especially the large and powerful ones – could behave like rivers these days.