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Young Engineers Sound Off on Rebuilding New Orleans

The planned rebuilding of New Orleans has sparked the imaginations of civil engineering students. spoke to four students with strong feelings about Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. Two of them had connections to New Orleans or the aftermath of the disaster.

What did they say? Go slow but not too slow in rebuilding flood protections, make the people of New Orleans feel safe and instill in elected officials and residents a new culture of prevention, the students suggest. Do that and the result of rebuilding could be a triumph of solid design and good sense.

There was also worry that New Orleans’ population, despite a tremendous will to resettle the city, could be permanently changed, as occurred in the Midwest during the Dustbowl of the 1930s.

Vogt: Feeling of security is needed

The flood control changes may be the simplest part. The biggest change in flood control approach will be levee and floodwall design and pumping station location, says Brett Vogt, a 22-year-old undergraduate engineering major at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. One important switch he sees is the change from placing floodwalls in compacted soil or other material to being sure they bear on concrete footings.

Another example is changing the flood control system in the hard-hit neighborhoods of Lakeview and the Lower 9th Ward, where the pumping stations were located inside the city, making it difficult to pump the water back into Lake Pontchartrain once flooding began. “Relocating pumping stations from the neighborhoods out toward the lake would move part of the containment to Lake Pontchartrain, where there are stronger earthen levees,” says Vogt.

Richard Kmack, another 22-year-old civil engineering major at Georgia Tech, says that when they rebuild the levees, “it’s not enough for them to look safe, people need to know they are safe.”

Looking to future levee construction, Kmack likes the Dutch model. The Netherlands’ system of dikes and levees has allowed Amsterdam and the surrounding countryside to stay dry despite lying below sea level.

“Whatever solutions they use should be something that blends back into the historic landscape of New Orleans,” says Kmack. Like the other students cited above, he recommends care in considering the needs of the residents and the preservation of the city’s character when formulating an engineering solution.

Arbelovsky: Create culture of prevention.
(Photo by Kevin Stearns/Cornell University)

To Stephanie Arbelovsky, a 23-year-old Cornell University Ph.D student, the greatest challenge is creating a culture of prevention. She compares what happened to New Orleans to what could happen to other U.S. cities in the event of a great earthquake.

In densely occupied Istanbul, for example, there is an aging infrastructure and a relatively high risk of a major earthquake. “The people there push the threat out of memory, and it makes them comfortable that the probability is so low,” says Arbelovsky.

Solid, quantitative analysis should be used to determine how to rebuild—and combined with a comprehensive understanding of the residents’ needs, says Arbelovsky. “When you are making choices, you need to do so making decisions with the people who are most vulnerable... That way you'll stay focused on reducing the risks of residents who live there,” she says.

Not all young engineers are stuck considering the New Orleans project from a distant academic perch, however. Rebekah Green, 31, who recently completed her Ph.D. in Structural Engineering and is now a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University's Earth Institute, plunged right into the middle of the New Orleans rebuilding effort this past month. She is one of several Earth Institute fellows working with ACORN (Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now) to survey the needs of New Orleans residents as part of a larger project of risk and damage assessments. Overall, she thinks that “the city can be repopulated, can be made flood-safe, or at least drastically lower the probability of large-scale flooding.” But Green also foresees possible hurdles to such plans. “The problem is that things of that scale are beyond the ability of the local governments. From an engineering standpoint, however, it’s not all that difficult.”

Performing her damage and risk assessments in the hardest-hit areas of New Orleans, Green hopes to gain a greater perspective on what the communities require from the various engineering projects surrounding them. She is also exploring the possibilities of community-level decision-making on future levee projects and city planning. Already she has found that “there is an incredible will to resettle [and] residents are helping clean out each others homes and helping clear debris. The thing is they’re waiting to see FEMA flood maps, to find out about the federal government aid packages, to see what the Army Corps will do about the levees.”

For Green, any reconstruction project must focus first on addressing the greatest threats to the communities, which can only happen when residents are given a voice. Otherwise, her outlook on New Orleans is grim. “My cynical side says that we will see a massive demographic change in the next few years, like with the Great Depression and the Dustbowl, a migration outward of low-income residents... The result would be a fundamental change of who is where. Assuming the political process takes on a high-level approach.” With so much at stake in the reconstruction, Green and the other young engineers were aware of how much engineers could shape the future.

Traveling about the city during a break from school, Georgia Tech’s Vogt heard of an instance of small-scale construction that might serve as an encouraging parable. “One of the effects of the hurricane was that it killed all vegetation,” says Vogt. “Everywhere is brown. A friend of mine saw this, and the first thing he did when he returned to his place in the Lakeview area was have his yard cleaned up and landscaped, re-seeded the grass and everything. Now it’s an island of green at a prominent corner of the neighborhood, and it gives the others coming back a feeling of security.”

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