It’s good to be back at work in New Orleans!

City Of New Orleans



NEW ORLEANS, LA — Mayor Landrieu announced that Hazard Mitigation Specialist Miriam Belblidia completed a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship in Water Management. This grant was one of two Netherlands-American Foundation (NAF)/Fulbright Fellowships in Water Management awarded in 2010-2011. While the Fellowship was established in response to the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, this was the first time it was awarded to a Louisiana resident.

“We congratulate Miriam on her impressive achievement and look forward to putting her research to good use now that she is back in New Orleans,” said Mayor Landrieu. “Water management is not only about quality of life, but also a matter of life and death for so many of our residents.”

The Fulbright Program’s Fellowship in Water Management provides grant awards through the U.S. Department of State and the Netherlands-America Foundation for advanced research in assessment of flood risks, spatial planning in flood-prone areas, and mitigating flood impact. This is the first time a City employee has received this award, and Ms. Belblidia’s work will support ongoing efforts by the Hazard Mitigation office to reduce local flood risk.

Ms. Belblidia has worked for the City of New Orleans since 2009 and took a temporary leave of absence from the Hazard Mitigation office to complete the Fulbright grant research. She was affiliated with the Technical University of Delft and assessed Dutch water management policy and flood mitigation strategies. As part of this research project, Ms. Belblidia developed recommendations to improve New Orleans’ approach to water management and is working to implement these changes in her work with the City’s Hazard Mitigation office.

“Even though the City missed her hard work for 9 months, this opportunity will bring a direct positive impact to our office and the work we do,” said Brad Case, Acting Director of the City’s Hazard Mitigation office.

The Hazard Mitigation office is a branch of the City of New Orleans’ Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security. The office is responsible for identifying hazards that threaten the City of New Orleans and pursuing measures to reduce the loss of life and property from future hazard events.

The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, giving approximately 300,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists, and scientists the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

Photo Credit: Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

I’ve been a negligent blog owner recently and with exactly a month left in the Netherlands, there is a lot to catch up on! But this week I’ve been focused on what’s going on back in the U.S., with record water levels and flooding along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. On May 2, the Army Corps decided to dynamite levees along the Mississippi River, flooding agricultural land in Missouri in order to save the town of Cairo, Illinois. While controversial and devastating to the agriculture-based economy in Missouri, the decision to employ the New Madrid floodway saved millions in damages:

The U.S. estimates that breaching the levee may cause $314 million in damage within the floodway, compared with more than $1.7 billion in damage across swaths of Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky that may result if levees elsewhere on the system are overtopped or burst in uncontrolled flooding (Harris 2011).

It remains to be seen how the the flooding will affect communities downstream, and how levees (especially non-federal ones) will hold up to the record high water levels. Other floodways will likely be employed to deal with the onslaught of water coming down the Mississippi – the Morganza Spillway above Baton Rouge, LA and the Bonnet Carre Spillway above New Orleans may be opened in the next week.

The Morganza Spillway opening in 1973 (Source: Times-Picayune)

For excellent insight on the New Madrid decision and floodways, check out Jessica Ludy’s article over on the American Rivers blog. Jess is the Associate Director of California Flood Management for AR and one of next year’s Water Management Fulbright Fellows!

For images comparing inundated areas following the opening of the floodway, before the levee breaches, and under normal conditions in 2010, see NASA’s Earth Observatory.

A walk in the mud: visiting De Schorren on Texel

As previously promised, I want to post about the water management sites I’ve been visiting around the Netherlands this spring. I’m going to start with the most recent field trips and work my way back, so buckle in for a tour of Dutch engineering and environmental marvels!

The Royal Institute for Sea Research

Last week I visited Texel, the largest of the Frisian Islands in the Wadden Sea. I was there to give a presentation at the Netherlands Centre for Coastal Research’s NCK-Days conference, discussing how we regulate coastal development through the NFIP back in the United States. Given that the Dutch don’t have a similar system of national flood insurance or a history of elevating houses to mitigate against flood damage, discussing how this is approached in Louisiana proved quite a curiosity for the audience. Whereas the Dutch approach is more focused on outer protection measures designed to reduce the probability of flooding, the U.S. approach allows for more residual risk, offset locally through insurance, building design, and land use regulations. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, so it’s always a great to have an opportunity to compare our flood mitigation systems.

The conference was hosted by NIOZ, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, which graciously organized a couple outings for attendees. On Saturday, we donned our Wellington boots to muck around in the mud at the Slufter and the Schorren.

A view from the dunes of the Sluifter

The Slufter is an old land reclamation project that has since been turned into a nature preserve. The area is open to the North Sea, making it a dynamic environment that changes in times of flooding or drought and provides an ideal habitat for migratory birds. The Schorren is a largely undisturbed area of marshes and mud flats, and a designated breeding ground for the spoonbill. In a country so reliant on engineered approaches to keeping water at bay, it was a nice change to see examples of a “building with nature” approach to coastal zone management.

Low tide at the Schorren

Photo credit: Mainichi Shimbun, via Reuters

The NY Times ran a thought-provoking article by Norimitsu Onishi on March 13, analyzing the role of seawalls in Japan’s flood protection and their catastrophic failures in the March 11 tsunami. It focuses on the danger of over-reliance on structural flood mitigation measures, and the need for redundancy in protection measures should these structures fail. Some highlights:

Some critics have long argued that the construction of seawalls was a mistaken, hubristic effort to control nature as well as the kind of wasteful public works project that successive Japanese governments used to reward politically connected companies in flush times and to try to kick-start a stagnant economy. Supporters, though, have said the seawalls increased the odds of survival in a quake-prone country, where a mountainous interior has historically pushed people to live along its coastline.

Mr. Kawata said that antitsunami seawalls were “costly public works projects” that Japan could no longer afford. “The seawalls did reduce the force of the tsunami, but it was so big that it didn’t translate into a reduction in damage,” he said, adding that resources would be better spent on increasing evacuation education and drills.

Gerald Galloway, a research professor of engineering at the University of Maryland, said one problem with physical defenses protecting vulnerable areas was that they could create a sense of complacency. “There are challenges in telling people they are safe” when the risks remain, he said.

For disturbing before & after aerial photos of the extent of the destruction in Japan, click here.

Apologies for the lack of posts this month – I decided in January that I need to spend less time inside & reading (which I can do anywhere) and more time visiting Dutch water management sites (which is really why I’m over here). So I’ve been checking things off my water management must-see list in the last few weeks. This has meant great times out in the Dutch countryside, but less time in front of the computer and therefore fewer posts. In the coming week, I’ll try to catch you up on my visits, including tours of the Maeslant storm surge barrier, the world’s largest steam pump (used to drain the Haarlem lake), and Friesian dwelling mounds.

In the mean time, I wanted to point out the picture above – a few weeks ago I was in a bookstore in Maastricht and came across this glossary of Dutch water management terms. You know a country is serious about its water when it has an entire dictionary devoted to its “Polderlands.”

“Safety levels, by definition, reflect the compromise choice between efforts for protection and implicitly accepted residual risks. When safety levels cannot be politically discussed due to the fear of contradicting the public conception of absolute security, a revision of flood defense policy is unattainable. This represents political lock-in…” (Wesselink 2007).

Cartographer/Designer: Riccardo Pravettoni

From the United Nations Environment Programme ‘s GRID-Arendal:

“Regional flood vulnerability. Since Asia comprises a large portion of the World’s population, and more than 40% of all the foods in the world occur in Asia, a large number of people are affected by disasters. More than 40% of the people killed by natural disasters are killed in Asia. In the ten-year period from 1999–2008, 402 foods were recorded in Africa, 342 in the Americas, 259 in Europe and 649 in Asia. In the same time period close to 1 billion people were affected by foods in Asia whereas the corresponding fgures for Europe were around 4 million, for the Americas 28 million and Africa 22 million. The vast majority of people either injured, made homeless or otherwise affected by natural disasters on a global basis, i.e. 80–90% live in Asia. As a rough estimate foods appear to cause 20–25% of all deaths associated with natural disasters across Asia (World Disaster Report, 2009, USAID, 2007, UNU-IAS, 2008).”

Source: Regional flood vulnerability. (2010). In UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library. Retrieved 20:44, January 31, 2011 from

A great reminder from a reader that levees aren’t only a concern for New Orleans and the Netherlands:

“Common to both the Netherlands and New Orleans is the impossibility of preventing human occupation in flood-prone areas. This implies having to live with flood risk – no matter how much the engineers, the politicians, and the public want to make sure flood never happens. Decisions about how to manage this situation must balance resistance and resilience, rigidity and flexibility, as well as being acceptable from a political and funding perspective” (Wesselink 2007).

Excerpt from “Risk Analysis and Uncertainty in Flood Damage Reduction Studies(National Research Council 2000)

Why the 100-Year Flood?
The concept of the 100-year flood is central to the National Flood Insurance Program and to many of the Corps’s flood damage reduction activities. Hundreds of government officials administer or work within these flood mitigation and damage reduction programs, to which millions of taxpayer dollars have been devoted. Many consultants are employed in mapping the nation’s 100-year floodplains and scores of university professors analyze the hydrological, statistical and public policy implications of the 100-year flood. Given the economic and social importance of these efforts, one would assume that the selection of the 100-year flood as a defining hydrological event is based on sound scientific and statistical foundations.

Gilbert White, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Colorado, is widely recognized as a leader in promoting sound US flood management strategies. In 1993, Professor White provided an oral interview to Martin Reuss, the Corps of Engineers senior historian. In that interview, White’s response to a question about the selection of the 100-year flood sheds some light on the rational for its selection. Given his knowledge of and experience in the US floodplain management, Gilbert White’s account may be among the better explanations for the prominence of the 100-year flood in US floodplain management and policy.

In response to the question “How do you take into account [the] so-called catastrophic flood— the once in 100-years flood?”, White stated: “There was a very interesting development of the notion that there could be a flood of sufficiently low frequency that no effort should be made to cope with it. The Federal Insurance Administration picked one percent [or] a recurrence interval of a hundred years. And some of us were involved in that because we recognized that they initially had to have some figure to use. The one-percent flood was chosen. I think Jim Goddard and TVA colleagues would be considered parties to the crime. With the lack of any other figure, the concept taken from TVA’s “intermediate regional flood” seemed a moderately reasonable figure. We generally use the term “catastrophic flood” for events of much lesser frequency.

This goes back to my earlier criticism of the FIA and it’s determination to cover the country promptly. In covering the country promptly they established one criterion—the 100-year flood. I think it would have been much more satisfactory if they had not tried to impose a single criterion but had recognized that there could be different criteria for different situations. This could have been practicable administratively even though a federal administrator would say it’s far easier, cleaner, to have a single criterion that blankets the country as a whole.

What’s the effect of a having criterion of 100 if in doing so a local community is encouraged to regulate any development up to that line and then to say we don’t care what happens above that line? We know that in a community like Rapid City the floods were of a lesser frequency than 100 years, and a community ought to be aware of this possibility. A simplified national policy tended to discourage communities from looking at the flood problem in a community-wide context, considering the whole range of possible floods that would occur.

So I would say that any community ought to be sensitive to the possibility of there being a 500-year flood, or a 1,000-year flood. It should try to consider what it would do in that circumstance, and wherein it could organize its development so that if and when that great event does occur it will have the minimum kind of dislocation.”

Gilbert White referred to several risk-related topics addressed in this report. For example, his comment regarding the value of using different criteria for different situations buttresses the Corps’s adoption of risk analysis techniques and the abandonment of the levee freeboard principle. As White pointed out, different geographical areas are subject to different levels of flood risk and uncertainty and thereby require different margins of safety. The committee also agrees with Professor White’s comments regarding flood hazard preparedness for floods of all magnitudes. This committee recommends that rather than focusing on a single event—the 100-year flood—that the Corps examine the risks of flooding from the full range of possible floods.