07/30/2007 01:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Backing Away, Bit by Bit, from New Orleans

As with many disasters, a "never again" moment followed the shock of Hurricane Katrina nearly two years ago. In New Orleans, citizens and politicians started calling for a renewed national commitment to protect the city. With some ingenuity and consistent funding, New Orleans could get the decent storm protection it never got the first time.

Alas, that moment was too brief. Now that plans - or at least, some concrete suggestions - are starting to gel on a long-term strategy to fortify New Orleans, it appears that commitment is wavering. Probably, it was never there in the first place. My former colleague Mark Schleifstein outlined the situation with this piece in The Times-Picayune over the weekend:

The Army Corps of Engineers has backed away from using a worst-case Category 5 hurricane as the design standard for long-term flood control projects, instead designing projects to protect against a "Katrina-like event" -- a hurricane with a 1-in-400 chance of hitting Louisiana in a given year.

Corps officials disclosed the philosophical change last week during a briefing of a National Research Council committee reviewing the work. After Katrina, Congress ordered the corps to study the cost and design of "providing protection for a storm surge equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane."

Corps officials acknowledged using a Katrina-like storm as the standard for protection, if ultimately used in flood protection projects to be authorized by Congress, could leave the region more vulnerable than so-called Category 5 protection. In corps parlance, Category 5 protection corresponds roughly to a worst-case storm with only a 1-in-1,000 chance of striking Louisiana in a given year.

What the Corps is proposing is certainly a lot better than what New Orleans has right now, which is downright dangerous. And perhaps the Corps officials Mark quotes are right that when they say there really isn't a huge difference between 1/400 and 1/1,000 year protection in terms of the costs and benefits.

But the problem is less in the numbers than in the Corps's general approach - that is, the idea of girding for a "Katrina-like event." Throughout the 300-year history of New Orleans, levees and other protections have been designed to protect against the last big storm. Then two things happen: those backward-looking plans are scaled down or poorly executed. Then another, bigger storm comes along. And the scale of the damage grows.

Katrina was certainly a major hurricane - though it had weakened by the time it made landfall in Louisiana, it had generated a huge storm surge. (But that, of course, merely sideswiped New Orleans on its way to Mississippi). So maybe we won't have to worry about another storm of that magnitude for a while. But given the risks - a sinking city, global warming and the possibility of stronger hurricanes, fumbling bureaucracies - I wouldn't stake my life on that idea, or a city's. It's painful to watch as the effort to assure the long-term survival of New Orleans slowly gets ground up in the bureaucratic machinery; nor does that bode well for other vulnerable spots.