Posted by: coastlinesproject | September 7, 2011

The Case for Optomism; New Orleans, Recovering and Reengineering With Wendi Goldsmith and the BioEngineering Group Inc, and the New Orleans Saints!

Monday Night Football;
The Case For Optimism
September 24, 2006

September 24, 2006 was another iconic night for New Orleans. It was the night the New Orleans Saints returned to the superdome for the first time since hurricane Katrina. One of the commentators made the point that FEMA money had helped pay for the rebuilding, which seemed fitting. New Orleans was not going to recover without income and what better income to have than from food loving, Bourbon Street bound football fans.
There were also reminders that some of the fans had been in the Superdome when it had been a “shelter of last resort” and that many were still living in trailers. But the dominant message was that the levees had been rebuilt, another Katrina had not hit, and the Saints were marching in — The Big Easy was back in business, NOLA was back in town. (97)
The message certainly resonated as a background story for a feel good night of football, but if New Orleans is truly going to be saved, rebuilding must be looked at in an entirely different way. Instead of starting with the Superdome or the Lower Ninth Ward we must start by looking at the coast on which New Orleans lies.
At first blush it does not look good. New Orleans is surrounded on three sides by water at sea level, while the city itself lies in a flood prone bowl 17 feet below the Gulf of Mexico. Plus New Orleans sits 20 feet below the Mississippi River which is itself both 3 feet above sea level and 100 feet below sea level where it flows through the city. The marshes, which could have saved New Orleans from Katrina’s storm surge if they had been allowed to grow naturally for the past 75 years, are fraying at the rate of 24 square miles per year or almost a football field every three minutes. You can go out for a day of fishing and return to find that part of your yard has slipped underwater or your dock has tumbled into the bayou. Over the past 25 years, 20 percent of all the nation’s repeat losses paid for by the National Flood Insurance have occurred in Louisiana’s Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
But there is also hope. If we first stand back and look at the coast we see that there is great redundancy already built into the natural systems that protect New Orleans. There are barrier islands, inlets, living marshes and natural ridges. All of these can be enhanced, but by undoing almost 300 years of mistakes. The river is the key to city’s protection. The most significant long term improvement would be to divert the potential 400 million tons of sediment that used to flow down the river back onto the marshes and barrier islands. This would mean not just standing back and looking at the coast but also standing back to look at making agricultural and navigational changes in the entire Mississippi watershed. They would include removing dams in upstream states that prevent much of the Mississippi’s potential sediment load from moving downstream and reducing the use of fertilizers so they don’t eutrophy the marshes and continue to pollute the Delaware-sized area of the Gulf of Mexico known as the Death Zone. (98)
Another hopeful feature of the marsh is that it is living, growing entity. If the oil companies stop channelizing the marshes and the Third Delta Conveyance Project proceeds, the marsh grasses will be able to incorporate these sediments into an interlocking matrix of roots and peat. This living soil be able to expand enough in five years to protect New Orleans against the amount of storm surge encountered in Katrina and enough in 20 years to dampen down the storm surge from a Category 5 hurricane. We will have created an eighty mile expanse of living, growing, low maintenance soil, a natural horizontal levee to protect New Orleans.
Storm surges could also be blocked by building barriers at strategic openings like the Rigolet’s pass into Lake Pontchetrain. This would be like a general deploying his soldiers at a mountain pass rather than stretching them along a long vulnerable front which is what engineers did when they built levees between the southern coast of Lake Pontchetrain and the city. Cypress trees could also be planted in Lake Pontechetrain to provide natural buffers to the artificial levees topped with canebrake plantings of American bamboo. The shallow roots of this native species would bind up the soil to help prevent the kind of levee failure that occurred during Katrina. Only after all these natural defenses have been considered and mapped should planners start looking at where development can be adequately protected.
Far away from the glare of the superdome lights there was evidence that the country was finally going to make some of these changes. The Bush administration had only been able to hold down the pressure for change for so long. Global warming, rising gasoline prices and hurricane Katrina had released the power of our still resourceful and innovative nation. It was almost as if you could hear the gears of a new paradigm as they meshed into place. You could feel voters demand action and towns, states, businesses and individuals take the initiative into their own hands.
Farmers planted corn for ethanol, towns built wind turbines, companies developed new technologies and voters demanded that the federal government require higher mileage automobiles. The National Academy of Sciences released a report that suggested that states replace towns in making long term decisions about coastal development and urged people to grow marshes instead of building seawalls to protect their shorefront homes. Even the insurance industry started to offer incentives for people to buy hybrid cars and to use green technology to rebuild their damaged homes. (99)

Nowhere was this new paradigm felt more than in the normally well insulated walls of the Army Corps of Engineers. Katrina had spawned a year of internal debate. The old guard knew they had had been caught with their pants down, and the new guard knew that if they were going to survive they had to try new approaches. They incorporated their new way of thinking into the Corps’ IPET report released in June 1. In the exhaustive report the Corps indicated they had to turn to other places and people to implement these new approaches. One place was the Netherlands that had it’s own extensive history with floods and engineering. One person was a young American soils scientist who had started her own company because none of the existing engineering firms were willing to consider using natural processes in battling flood control.
Now one of the largest civil engineering project ever awarded was about to fall on the shoulders of this woman who had made it her life’s mission to overturn the old school of engineering based solely on massively built hard structures like levees and seawalls to one based on working with nature’s natural redundancy to create multiple layers of protection.
Wendi Goldsmith arrived at her approach through a long process of self directed education. At Yale she had studied geology and geophysics and spent so much time hanging around Yale’s renowned School of Forestry she described herself as their adopted pet mascot. From Yale she had gone on to study soil science, botany and landscape engineering in graduate school before signing on as an apprentice to her mentor Lothar Bestman in North Germany. It was from here that she had been able to return to her roots in nearby Holland. Both her maternal grandfather and great grandfather had left Rotterdam to join the Dutch engineering team that helped build the New York’s Holland Tunnel in the 1930’s. Later, on an exchange program at the Delft Hydraulic Institute she witnessed the turn around in Netherlands’ own thinking about flood control. (100)
There had been a lot to learn. As early as 1300, the Dutch had built their first community windmill to pump water from behind the modest dikes used to protect their homes and churches that were themselves built on mounds to protect against floods. Today Rotterdam, the second largest seaport in the world, lies 23 feet below sea level and Amsterdam, the capital of Holland, lies 12 feet below sea level. In fact, seventy percent of the country’s GDP is produced below sea level. As the Dutch like to say, while God create the earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands. (100a)
Like Louisiana, the Netherlands has had a long history of natural disasters. The Dutch suffered seventeen major floods between 1700 and 1950. But in 1953, Holland experienced what it called their perfect storm. Hurricane force winds and record high storm surges burst through the dikes in mid-December killing 1,800 people, inundating 50,000 homes and leaving 350,000 acres totally flooded. The United States supplied pumps and helicopters to help the Dutch dewater the country so when Katrina hit the Dutch were quick to show their gratitude. They dispatched the royal frigate Van Amsel to rescue survivors in Biloxi and flew pumps, helicopters and engineers to New Orleans to help dewater the city. (101)
After the 1953 storm, the Dutch vowed that such a catastrophe would never happen again. They embarked on a national program to built dikes massive enough to withstand a 10,000 year storm, a level of protection that far exceeds that for a Category 5 hurricane. This was hard engineering on an unprecedented scale. But almost from the beginning problems arose. Once thriving estuaries became fetid algae clogged fresh water holding ponds and navigation suffered when sedimentation clogged former shipping lanes.
Slowly, the country started to modify its approach. It built moveable barriers that allowed tidal waters to flow freely during normal times but could be raised during storms to block storm surges. It changed zoning regulations so government had the power to prevent people from building in flood prone areas. It set aside those areas to provide room so their three major rivers, the Rhine, the Meusse and the Scheldt could flow into their natural floodplains during storms without destroying homes and businesses. They built secondary channels to bypass their vulnerable urban areas. It has been a long evolution but since the 1970’s, the Netherlands major preoccupation has been to learn how to manage both water behavior and human behavior rather than to simply fight floods with massive engineering. (102)
After completing her European education, Goldsmith returned to the United States to interview for jobs, but none of the engineering firms were interested in doing the kind of bioengineering she wanted to pursue. So instead of working for someone else she had started her own company, the Bioengineering Group in Salem Massachusetts.
As soon as Katrina hit Goldsmith realized that New Orleans presented the ideal situation to use bioengineering principles to provide the best long term protection for the city. She immediately started to shuttle back and forth to New Orleans, Washington and Boulder Colorado to explain the virtues and procedures of bioengineering. In Boulder she reconnected with Arcadis, the American subsidiary of the Dutch firm that had designed the storm surge barriers in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, London, Venice and St. Petersburg. The company had written the book on coastal engineering and authored the renaissance in the new Dutch way of thinking about flood control.
Her talks were less like a sales pitch than a delightful, wide ranging college colloquium. She used her knowledge of geology and geophysics to provide the broad picture and her training in soils science, botany and landscape engineering to provide details. She knew her audience well enough, and was herself enough of a realist, to know you had to use some traditional hard solutions to provide short term solutions, but she never lost sight of bioengineering’s long term benefits. She almost tapped out all her personal and company resources to do it, but over several months she gradually won over more and more converts who introduced her to others. Eventually, crusty old engineers from the traditional school of engineering within the Corps came around to her way of thinking, and cynics from the new guard, who had formerly despaired of ever seeing real change, realized she might just have the optimism and determination to see this through. (103)
One-by-one traditional old engineering firms like Halliburton fell out of the running and her joint partnership with the Dutch subsidiary Arcadis in Boulder and her start up bioengineering group in Massachusetts won the largest civil engineering contract ever awarded. But the real significance of the contract was that it showed that the nation and the Army Corps of Engineers had made a sincere commitment to a new greener way of thinking about coastal policy in our modern era of more powerful storms and sea level rise.

Excerpt from William Sargent’s “Just Seconds from the Ocean; Coastal Living in the Wake of Katrina,” available at and through this site.


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