Waterproofing New Orleans

The world’s largest drainage pump station – the GIWW-West Closure Complex – has been erected as part of a massive drain underlying the city. As storms approach, a gate blocks the water surge from entering the system while pumps reduce the risk of flooding from rainfall.

New Orleans Flood Protection Project

$14.6 Billion:
Total Project Cost

$13.3 Billion:
Spent Funds

Peak project
employment in 2010

The federal government’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have labored mightily for 13 years building up the rims of the bowl surrounding iconic New Orleans.

All along a 133-mile perimeter, levees, floodwalls, gated structures and pump stations have been strengthened, raised in height and anchored to greater depths.

The world’s largest surge barrier, the IHNC-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier – has been planted and stands ready to protect its city.

The goal is to keep out – as much as possible, given the constraints of budget and technology – hurricane surging waters from the Gulf of Mexico, backwash from Lake Pontchartrain and overflow from the mighty Mississippi.

For a detailed breakdown of the massive infrastructure buildup of New Orleans flood protection since Hurricane Katrina, visit the official US Army Corps of Engineers website.

An army of contractors and their workers, many Louisiana-based, were put to work on the $14.6 billon effort, officially dubbed the “Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System.” Of that sum, more than $13.3 billion or more than 90 percent of the allocated funds have been spent.

You can read the impressive roster of out-side companies brought in at the Corps site, which lists construction companies you never heard of that booked hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. That includes Archer Western Contractors, $112.2 million; Boh Brothers, $580 million; Cajun Constructors, $421.8 million – and many more.

Many of the crews that they assembled – think of the scale the undertaking, rivaling the building the pyramids – are now gone. At its peak in 2010, the hurricane and flood fighting work employed 60,000.

Now it is time to step back, and consider what has been accomplished.

“Shared responsibility with and commitment from our partners enabled successful completion of the 100- year system, which performed as designed in recent storms such as Hurricane Isaac,” the Corps said in an official statement.

ricky boyett

“When a storm comes, we close all 450 openings and we have a walled city,” said Ricky Boyett, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans. (Photo by Martin Rosenberg)

Ricky Boyett, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, summed it all up. Everything that the Corps has undertaken is to address a potential storm with a 1 percent likelihood of happening in any single year, he said.

Katrina was a once-in-250 year storm, he added.

“When a storm comes, we close all 450 openings and we have a walled city,” he told Icons of Infrastructure.

Part of the new defenses include the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier 12 miles east of the city center – about a 45-minute drive – that extends 26 feet above sea level and is supported by pilings drilled 140 feet down into the underlying muck.

“We try to stop the water as far from the city as possible,” Boyett said.

The 1.8 mile, $1 billion structure is one of the largest of its kind in the world, requiring an ocean of concrete second only to amount used to build the massive Hoover Dam during the Depression.

If barriers are over-topped, Boyett said, “When the storm subsides, we can pump water out.”

It is just one piece of an effort that has been epochal in the history of the Corps. Indeed, many Corps engineers and future leaders have cycled through stints in New Orleans to learn from the project – and take their insights to major federally funded infrastructure efforts around the country in future years.

What has been put in place in New Orleans, Boyett sums up this way:

“It’s a massive system – there is nothing like it in the U.S.”

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