Dispatch, New Orleans: Down by the levee

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Travel Weekly's Arnie Weissmann was in New Orleans for the grand reopening celebration for the Hyatt Regency. His second and final dispatch follows. Click to read his first dispatch. 

I'm aware that there are various commercial tours in New Orleans going to sites related to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, but I wanted to know what was learned from the disaster, and what was being done to ensure that it would not happen again.

I love New Orleans, and have followed its recovery carefully, yet every hurricane season since then, I have harbored a concern that history could repeat itself.

In a recent visit to the city, I arranged with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau to visit the local HQ of the Army Corps of Engineers, the branch of the military that works on great civil projects and is often charged with taming nature.

The Corps drew a tremendous amount of criticism after Katrina because the levees it was supposed to maintain had failed, submerging entire neighborhoods.

17th Street Outfall Canal

I met with Ricky Boyett, a public affairs specialist with the Corps, and we went over many maps and photographs showing, literally and figuratively, the lay of the land.

Much of the city is below the levels of the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, the Gulf Transcoastal Waterway, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (shortened in conversation to "Mr. Go") and miscellaneous canals and bayous and spillways, all of which border or rive the city.

Although the Corps was heavily criticized, Boyett noted that there was not much congressional support to fix the city's outdated levees before Katrina because, at that time, there had not been any threats in recent memory. No one was going to authorize spending the billions of dollars necessary to reduce the risk of what was determined to be a once-in-400-years hurricane threat.

But shortly after the storm, $14.48 billion was earmarked for revamping the levees, locks, floodwalls, surge barriers and pumping stations. Typically, for a project of that size, an environmental impact study would still be underway six years later, and not a yard of concrete would have been poured.

But after the disaster, an exceptional exception was made: Each piece of the project could go forward with its own smaller impact study, with a final review and comprehensive impact study completed later.

That's not particularly reassuring, but such were the political realities in the aftermath of Katrina that there was a tremendous pressure to reduce any further threat quickly.

The levees along Lake Pontchartrain to the north have all been rebuilt to a height of over 26 feet -- seven feet higher than would have been necessary to contain Katrina. Lake Borgne to the east is now likewise contained. New floodwalls to protect the city's southern flank have been completed. "Mr. Go" has been closed, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Some work along the Mississippi, however, was delayed due to high water this year, and a portion in the southeast of the city, from an area called "English Turn" to south of Belle Chasse, is still considered vulnerable.

My visit to the Corps was both reassuring and disturbing. While I'm feeling better about the state of protection for New Orleans, I can't help but wonder and worry about the threats to life, property and national treasures as a result of decaying infrastructure in other parts of the country.

The choice between spending to prevent "what-ifs" and trying to lower government spending in general is debated every day in Congress and, for that matter, across dinner tables.

But I suspect that the travel industry could build an economic case for repairing a broad range of outdated infrastructure, from air traffic control systems to bridges to highways to levees. We could demonstrate how protecting and improving access to existing sites, as well as facilitating development to lesser-known attractions, could spur economic activity that would generate more revenue for the government than was spent on improvements.

In other words, infrastructure maintenance is a wise investment.

There are other industries that would benefit from attention to infrastructure as well. One can envision a pan-industrial coalition, working with an administration that has already indicated support for infrastructure improvement, to not only prevent future large-scale disasters, but to provide a stimulus program with far reaching effects for our industry, for the unemployed and, broadly speaking, for the American people and the millions of people from abroad we welcome every year.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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