George Mason Study Cautions Against NOLA Levee Security


Hurricane Katrina was one of the most devastating storms to strike our country when it impacted a large swath of the gulf coast in August 2005. New Orleans was particularly hard hit as the levee system there wasn’t able to hold back the rising tide, eventually breaking and flooding thousands of homes and killing hundreds.

Hurricane KatrinaSince then, the Army Corps of Engineers has been overseeing the rebuilding of the levee system, which includes a proposed $6 billion investment that residents hope will withstand the next big storm. But, a recent study by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University cautions policymakers against relying on levees as the panacea to a stronger Gulf Coast.

“Reliance on government protection can create false impressions that individual risks have been minimized, thus encouraging more personal and business investment in disaster-prone regions,” report the study’s authors, Peter Gordon and Richard Little.

Politicians in Louisiana are pushing for Congress to approve of a $6 billion request in the upcoming stimulus (bail out) package to cover the costs of rebuilding the levee system, however the George Mason study cautions against relying heavily on levees when a storm hits the city. “History is littered with accounts of allegedly foolproof or failsafe systems that failed spectacularly when stressed,” state Gordon and Little.

The study goes on to warn supporters not to stress the “impenetrable levees” as the safe guard against an advancing storm, as that would give residents a false sense of security. Instead, the study suggests that planners employ alternative approaches when preparing residents for a storm including:

  • Encourage people to avoid the risk by locating somewhere outside the flood-prone area. While this was not an option for many of the people who were already living in New Orleans in August 2005, it is as redevelopment occurs.
  • Transfer the risk through insurance or similar methods, such as catastrophe bonds.
  • Retain ownership of the risk to ensure the general public knows they are not protected from all levels of catastrophe.

This latter point is stressed to help people understand that no levee system can ensure the safety of residents in the event of a cataclysmic event.

America’s new president, Barack Obama, has promised to build New Orleans, “stronger and better than ever.” Yet a more comprehensive approach than federal-funded levees will be necessary for decision makers at all levels — from elected officials to individual homeowners — to adequately develop a system which manages flood risk more effectively, the study shows.

Gordon and Little argue that the rebuilding process in New Orleans is a time to allow local areas to explore options for levee development and management beyond the conventional reliance on federal agencies, and explore the options of private community management and contractors.

“The research is germane far beyond the Pelican State and should be a useful tool for any state or local government that relies on levees, floodworks, and other protections against natural disasters,” says Daniel Rothschild director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s Gulf Coast Recovery Project.

The report is available online at the Mercatus Center (

Source: Mercatus Center at George Mason University

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Categories: Academics