A historic event, Piet Dircke expects Hurricane Ida to take over New Orleans. Not because Ida will surpass Hurricane Katrina in damage and victims, but precisely because it won‘t happen: “I dare to put my hand in the fire for that,” says the director of water management of Dutch engineering company Arcadis. “At Katrina, the story was how New Orleans had failed, but the success story after that must also be told.”
Dircke sounds sure of his case. As of 2005, Arcadis has developed, invented and prepared $200 million in plans and oversees the construction of a completely new protection system, with dikes, concrete retaining walls and three major storm surge defences around the city. It is called the Hurricane & Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS).
In total, New Orleans delta works cost $14.5 billion. Dircke himself was “between forty and fifty times” in New Orleans as part of the work. “Ida is the first real test case or systems keep it.”
It’s not the first hurricane since Katrina destroyed large parts of the city in 2005 and killed 1800 fatalities. Isaac crossed in 2012, but that was a lowest-category hurricane. Katrina was a category 5 hurricane, Ida has been assigned category 4. In addition, the entire protection system was not finished at Isaac‘s time.
Now that is the case, although when it comes to water management, you can never say that it’s finished, Dircke says: “In the Netherlands we started to protect ourselves from the water around 1200 and there we still see floods, like last in Limburg.”
Limburg states will now see you as well at Ida in New Orleans, think Dircke. There is a risk of overtopping. That means that the water is higher than the dikes and reversals. “A barrier may not close in time, or a pump can‘t handle the amount of water. Then you get flooding and short circuit. People will get a wet suit, but no one drowns.”
According to Dircke, the most important thing is that the systems don’t succumb. That did happen to Katrina. Dikes and reversals broke due to poor and obsolete constructions, with disastrous consequences.
Here are the first images of the hurricane:
HSDRRS is designed to withstand weather conditions that occur once every hundred years. Compared to Dutch levels of protection, that seems low. The Dutch delta works are designed to withstand storms that occur once every few thousand years. Dircke: “America is a totally different country, with far more disasters than just water disasters. They make a much greater appeal to the resilience of the population themselves.” We can‘t protect you from everything, is the message from US governments to their citizens.
In addition, Dircke says that the dikes in New Orleans are higher than in the Netherlands: “The water can reach very short and very heavily higher. A storm that occurs every hundred years in New Orleans is not the same as a storm that occurs once every hundred years in the Netherlands.”
Dircke says it’s an impressive achievement. Not only has there been the largest storm surge barrier in the world, with the largest pump in the world (“a storm surge barrier stops the water, but that means it cannot flow away either”), especially the speed at which works after Katrina was set up he mentions special.
In about four years, most of it was finished. “A lot of money has been pumped into it, a hard deadline has been set and the top priority has been given. Sometimes a part of a piece of art was put in place while we had only 80 percent designed. Then it became a little wider, slightly higher or slightly heavier than would have been strictly necessary if you designed it optimally efficiently.”
But still Dircke‘s worried. “Americans are good at building new things, but are not champions in maintenance. At the Maeslantkering, 22 people are engaged in full time maintenance for a barrier that closes once every ten years. You need that commitment.”
And the circumstances make New Orleans, which lies below sea level, is becoming more vulnerable. “Subsidence drops New Orleans, the sea is rising due to climate change, and the sea is getting even closer as erosion disappears every day a piece of the Mississippi delta into the sea.” The most important thing is to protect the Louisiana coast with natural methods. Dircke: “But no one has found Columbus’s egg for that yet.”
Louisiana residents are now brace for the arrival of the hurricane: