Activists Blocked New Orleans Levee Plan

Published November 1, 2005

A massive levee system, approved by President Lyndon Johnson and supported by the Army Corps of Engineers during the Carter administration, would have held back the flood waters from Hurricane Katrina and saved the city of New Orleans, scientists and engineers have concluded. The proposed levee system was abandoned after environmental activist groups sued to stop construction of the project.

Blocked Levee Fix

The proposed levee system gained bipartisan support after Hurricane Betsy, a Category 2 hurricane, barreled into the Louisiana coast in 1965. Congress passed legislation authorizing the project, and Johnson signed the bill into law.

In 1977, while the law was being implemented by the Carter administration, environmental activist groups obtained a court injunction to stop construction, arguing the levees would impede the flow of ocean water into Lake Pontchartrain and distress the lake’s shrimp population.

“If we had built the barriers, New Orleans would not be flooded,” Joseph Towers, retired chief counsel for the Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans district, told the September 9 Los Angeles Times.

J. Bennett Johnston, a Democratic U.S. senator from Louisiana when the levee was approved by Congress and Johnson, agreed with Towers’ assessment. “It would have prevented the huge storm tide that came into Lake Pontchartrain,” Johnston told the Times.

“My feeling was that saving human lives was more important than saving a percentage of shrimp and crab in Lake Pontchartrain,” Towers told the Times. “I told my staff at the time that this judge had condemned the city. Some people said I was being a little dramatic.”

Johannes Westerink, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Notre Dame, ran computer simulations of the Katrina storm surge, this time with the scuttled levee system in place, and concluded “it would have stopped that,” according to the Times.

No Regrets

Save Our Wetlands (SOWL) led the opposition to the levee project. The activist group, which still raises significant money in pursuit of an extremist agenda, proudly proclaims on its Web site its role in scuttling the needed levees: “While politicians talk, SOWL sues! SOWL has been involved in countless lawsuits involving Lake Ponchartrain on every subject,” including “New Orleans Mosquito Control Drainage schemes in wetlands of New Orleans East” and “Corps of Engineers Hurricane Barrier Project” (

“SOWL has always fought bitterly against the United States Army Corps of Engineers,” the group’s Web site boasts.

“In 1977, SOWL obtained an injunction from U.S. District Judge Charles Schwartz enjoining the Corps of Engineers from building a billion dollar dam at the Chef Mentaur Rigolets Fort Pike Area, where the Gulf of Mexico enters into Lake Ponchartrain,” SOWL added. This is part of the project experts say would have saved New Orleans from Katrina.

A Frequent Target

The National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense, American Rivers, and Save Our Wetlands criticize Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain levees extensively on their Web sites.

According to Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) fellow John Berlau, the Sierra Club led a partnership of several environmental activist groups that sued the Army Corps of Engineers in 1996, forcing a delay and revision of plans to raise and fortify several Mississippi River levees in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Claiming irreparable potential damage to area wetlands that would be cut off from flooding, the activist groups pressured the Army Corps to delay the project and reassess its plans.

“Whether this delay directly affected the levees that broke in New Orleans is difficult to ascertain,” observed Berlau in National Review Online on September 8. He added, “Over the past few years, levees came to occupy the same status for environmental groups as roads in forests–an artificial barrier to nature. They frequently campaigned against levees being built and shored up on the nation’s rivers, including on the Mississippi.”

Katrina Impact Was Predicted

“One has to question the wisdom of opposing improvement of a levee system that was predicted to fail in a major hurricane,” said Pat Michaels, past president of the American Association of State Climatologists and senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “This is especially so considering that New Orleans is situated in one of the most hurricane-prone regions on Earth.

“Katrina was the most predicted national calamity in the history of natural disasters,” Michaels explained. “Going back decades, it is hard to find writings in the field of applied climatology that have not warned of the impending disaster of New Orleans. Not surprisingly, it happened, even though it could have been prevented.”

“A rebuilt New Orleans will need much more protection,” said Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Iain Murray. “Environmental activists are right when they say wetlands can help, but they are dead wrong when they say they are sufficient. The people of New Orleans need both natural and man-made defenses if they are to live their lives free from worry in their ancestral neighborhoods.”

“There is no excuse for activist groups to hobble the Army Corps in doing their job of flood control,” Berlau added. “This is an issue that goes beyond New Orleans. There are other cities along other rivers that face similar threats, and yet the activists are blocking the construction of levees there as well. When will they stop imperiling American lives for their extremist agenda?”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.