Current Understanding

Louisiana and the other parts of the coastal delta face great difficulty recovering vital services lost due to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The energy infrastructure including production facilities, pipelines, and refineries has been devastated. This caused an increase in energy costs because many of the facilities are still offline. In addition, the area is left with a staggering need for redevelopment to better protect the population from future hurricanes and tropical storms. Integration of scientific information into the reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure is one of the greatest needs for those involved with rebuilding.

The crippling flooding associated with hurricanes Katrina and Rita proved that the flood control measures in New Orleans were incapable of providing adequate protection to the city. Considerable evidence in the aftermath of events has noted design and construction deficiencies in the overwhelmed floodwalls and levee system, although final assessments of the cause of levee failure are yet to be released. It is known that levee failure led to massive failures in the storm protection system and damage to the physical infrastructure.

In the past, dams and flood control levees were built using I beams or inverted T beams, but the loose soils of New Orleans slipped from the barriers and left them unstable. Finding a way to ensure robust flood control levees and providing better protection of evacuation routes are glaring needs that demand immediate attention.

Several vital components of the communications infrastructure such as a key satellite receiving station along the Mississippi coast as well as scores of cellular telephone towers were downed or rendered unusable from flooding and wind damage. That damage reduced the ability to issue warnings and prevented the effective spread of information concerning the hurricanes.

Hurricane floodwaters destroyed innumerable structures and significantly damaged shipping lanes in the major deepwater port region. Evacuation routes were inundated or rendered unsafe because of the storm surge, adding further confusion and difficulty for fleeing citizens. Chemicals and contaminants from refineries along with sewerage mixing with floodwaters, fortunately, did not translate into illness among the population. In addition to people being uprooted by flooding, the fabric of the region from buildings to wetlands was disrupted. Future developments have been imperiled.

Physical infrastructure challenges include determining the best ways to prioritize reconstruction projects, rebuilding Gulf Coast seaports, and carving out new shipping lanes where the existing ones were damaged.

Near-Term Needs

Needs for reconstruction must be carefully prioritized. There are a large number of projects involved with rebuilding the Gulf Coast, many of which require immediate attention. One significant hurdle will be prioritizing the various needs throughout the region. The piecemeal development over the past half century in areas of the Gulf Coast affected by the hurricanes has been undone. A chance to rebuild an adequate infrastructure now exists.

Reconstruction must be directed toward building an integrated infrastructure that takes into account both economic/social needs and physical realities. Major elements of that infrastructure include rebuilding coastal ports and energy facilities, providing safer storm shelters, constructing more resilient observation and communications centers, protecting critical infrastructure such as hospitals and shelters, providing better planned and maintained evacuation routes, and creating more effective flood control levees. Planners, engineers, and scientists need to confront these problems together. Existing models, for example, need to consider rising sea levels and warming in the Gulf of Mexico. The underlying geology of the region must not be overlooked since it plays such a vital role in any construction.

Selected navigation channels have to be maintained.

Longer-Term Directions

Improving technology shortcomings such as computer models or satellite data interpretations that can simulate wind and water conditions more realistically is essential. In addition, there is a need for a more resilient infrastructure and improved siting for many of those components. All will require additional research. Better quality data will improve the accuracy of landfall predictions, tidal heights, and storm surges associated with large storms. Model output should provide wind speed over land from which assessments can be made of site-specific potential damage. Such systems will require significant upgrades from existing technology and the use of supercomputers.

Creation of an integrated system to determine how the storm surge will interact with ground features such as the landforms and buildings can help prevent the types of water bottlenecks that initiated the floodwall breaches in New Orleans. The Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) as well as several other groups already have performed such modeling. Additionally, placing restrictions on development in areas adjacent to flood control structures might be considered as a way to minimize future damage. Construction of protected satellite and ground observation stations will allow better land and sea observations to be made even under adverse conditions. Hardened communications systems are vital for protecting a vulnerable population. Ideally, scientific equipment and human systems could be coordinated and tied together seamlessly to hasten a rapid recovery after any future disaster.