For many New Orleanians, Mark Schleifstein is pretty damn close to an essential read. His formal title is “environment and hurricane reporter” for the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, but that somewhat shortchanges the breadth of his reporting. In addition to tracking storms in the Gulf during hurricane season, Schleifstein covers the condition of the levees, the Army Corps of Engineers and its role in maintaining flood protection, stormwater management, the eroding coastline, and the efforts to restore and rebuild the wetlands. He knows not only the science, the hydrology, but the complicated history and politics that drive it.
Over the course of his long career, Schleifstein has had a hand in most of the important stories about New Orleans and water. He conceived and co-wrote (with John McQuaid) a series on the endangered fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. He also conceived and co-wrote (again with McQuaid) the seminal 2002 series “Washing Away,” which three years prior to Katrina warned that the city was subject to severe flooding due to inadequate levee heights. He was part of the heroic team of Times-Picayune reporters who covered the city in the chaotic aftermath of Katrina and later shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. When the Times-Picayune was purchased by The Advocate in 2019, Schleifstein joined the rechristened paper and continued his coverage. Last month, while unpacking boxes in New York City after living in New Orleans for a decade, I talked to Schleifstein about the Crescent City, flood protection, and whether he’d sign a 30-year mortgage.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
MS: Mark Schleifstein
When I moved to New Orleans in 2011, they were finishing up repairs on the levees. That was the phase of rebuilding. Then it slipped into another phase, which is sediment diversions downriver and dealing with land loss on the coast. Where are we now, in New Orleans’ continuing reckoning with water?
There are three major issues involving water that affect New Orleans. One is the levees, which have now been built to the standard that was set by Congress to meet the national flood insurance program: levees designed so that their heights can withstand storm surges caused by a hurricane that has a 1% chance of occurring in any year, the so-called 100-year storm. That system is complete, but it’s already below those standards in some areas because of subsidence and sea level rise. And so the Corps is in the midst of moving towards approval of a major, 50-year project, starting in 2023, that would continue to elevate the levees to the 100-year level.
Is a 100-year level high enough?
No, it’s not. And so there is pushback by the local east bank levee district and the state. They want higher standards, to at least 200 years. And there are many who feel it should be much higher: 500 years. At the same time, the Corps itself gives the levee system a rating of “High Risk,” which is the second-worst levee rating in the United States, because of the probability that a large storm would flood the city, and the amount of potential damage that would cause.
What was the rating pre-Katrina?
There was no rating. The rating process began as part of the post-Katrina efforts by the Corps. One of the things they were required to do after Katrina was to begin looking at every levee system in the country on a five-year basis. As part of that process, it came up with this rating system that looks at things that are beyond the 100-, 200-year standards, but asks what are the real risks on the systems.
So that’s … somewhat alarming.
[Laughs] Yeah, it is. At the same time, the reality is that we have the best levee system in the United States. And unlike the pre-Katrina system, the levees were built this time to be resilient. Built to assure that pieces don’t fall apart when the water hits it, or when they’re over-topped. That would limit the amount of flooding in a 500-year storm. So, if a Katrina-type storm were to hit again—that was a 400-year event—it would create about 5 feet of floodwater in parts of the city. Although it would cause significant damage, that’s at least survivable.
It would be somewhere between Hurricane Betsy and Hurricane Katrina.
Exactly. So that’s the first issue.
The second issue is, after Katrina, the state reviewed its coastal master plan, which was aimed at restoring coastal wetlands, and decided that what they needed to do is improve wetlands in areas that would provide the best protection to the levee system, to reduce the speed in which that sea level rise would occur in front of them.
Those are the sediment diversions and all of the wetlands restoration projects?
It’s all of the wetlands restoration projects. There’s $25 billion over 50 years that is put into that part of the master plan. Out of that $25 billion, about $20 billion are projects that include plantings, rebuilding wetlands using pipelines—dredging sediment from the river and pumping it into open water—and then the smaller portion of that, it’s still a sizable chunk, is the diversions. Those are moving forward now, along with the pump and build projects that have been on the ground already. There’s BP money being used to build some of those and other state money as well, in the short term.
It seems like the whole city was torn up when I left, for Sewage & Water Board drainage.
That’s the third water issue facing New Orleans: rainfall, which occurs because of either hurricanes or regular rainfall events. This year, we almost had about 60 inches of rain halfway through the year, which is unprecedented.
With at least a foot of it in June.
It’s just nuts. For years before Katrina, New Orleans had a conceit about the Sewage & Water Board and its pumping system. They would always say, “We’ve got the best pumping system in the world. Just look, the same pumps that we use are the ones used in the Netherlands.” And that was true, but that was true in 1912, when these pumps were originally built, and they’re the same pumps. They are still state-of-the-art pumps, but there are a lot of problems with them. The biggest one is their electrification. The system used to run them is 25-cycle power, which no one uses today. The city finally agreed to partner with Entergy to build a switching station at the water plant to provide 60-cycle power, in a way that’s usable to the system, as opposed to relying on their own electric facilities, many of which are not dependable.
The other major issue with the drainage system is that, when it was redesigned in 1996, the Corps decided to upgrade the system to assure that it was meeting a 10-year rainfall event. They set those standards, but have never been able to meet them, largely because it’s physically impossible. The drainage tunnels built after Katrina are five times as large as the ones that were there prior to Katrina. They’re big enough to stack two school buses inside them. But they’re only designed for a 10-year rain event. That’s a problem when you get more than a 10-year event, and we get 100-year events.
It seems like New Orleans gets 10-year events weekly.
That’s a continuing problem, and it all costs money. The city had a big chunk of money after Katrina to start that process. A large piece was put into the bills that were used to rebuild the levee system. Part of that money went to improving the drainage as well. So those are the three key issues now. And the ongoing one is that there’s no money to continue all of this into the future.
That’s a pretty big problem. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the idea of giving up land to water was a political nonstarter, for good reasons. But are we reaching a moment when we’re going to have to think about what parts of New Orleans we can, and cannot, realistically defend?
That decision largely was made in terms of the footprint of the system after Katrina. Basically anything that’s inside the levee system, the city and Congress decided, was worth defending. Even if you tried to chop pieces out—remember the so-called green dots?—that’s still about interior drainage, rather than storm surge. The storm issue is essentially the levee system. The issues going forward will be: Is there enough money to improve protection? Can we elevate it to a 200-year system? Can we do things outside the levee system that will be the equivalent of that elevation?
How much BP settlement money is there for coastal restoration?
It’s about nine to $10 billion that can be used for that purpose. There’s different pots. And as part of the settlement, the decision was made to assure that a big chunk of that money is used to rebuild barrier islands in the state, and to do the planning that was needed for the two diversions. That was written into the settlement, as the result of [Senator] Mary Landrieu stepping in behind the scenes to ensure that would occur.
Similarly, there are multiple pieces to the civil settlements. There’s the clean water act, the restore act, which was another couple of billion dollars. When that was created, one of the concerns was: How do we guarantee that the money is properly spent on things directly associated with the effects of the storm on natural resources? And so Landrieu again stepped in and assured that natural resources had to be directly written into it. And then the state itself, after Katrina, passed an amendment to the state constitution that limited the way that money from offshore oil could be used, to allow it only to be used for restoration or hurricane protection.
Are those state initiatives subject to a different governor?
The master plan is designed by the coastal protection and restoration authority, which is part of the state. And then a revision is presented to the legislature every six years. The next one will be in 2023. The legislature has the opportunity to give it a vote up or down only. It can hold all the hearings it wants, complain about it, but the only vote they can take is up or down. And the annual spending plans also get that same up or down vote each year. Although individual projects are supported in part by the state’s budget, which are line items. So, it’s complicated.
All of these events are set against this ticking bomb of subsistence and increasing sea level rise. What’s our timeline?
The state has adopted a 50-year horizon that it updates now every six years. 2017 was the last one. It uses the upper level of the 2000 IPCC estimates for sea level rise, adjusted for the Gulf of Mexico. We’ll see how they work out, when the new numbers come out later this year. It could be pretty significant. We’re talking 5 feet.
And even that could be underestimating it too.
Exactly. But it could also be underestimating it, if something is done. The other piece of this is, the governor has this climate initiatives task force that he’s created to look at how to reduce climate emissions in the state, which is pretty wild for Louisiana.
What’s your view on the future of New Orleans and Louisiana, and all of these issues? Are you optimistic, guardedly optimistic, guardedly pessimistic?
Long-term pessimistic, short-term guardedly optimistic. But without change, without a reduction in carbon emissions, honored by everybody, worldwide, 100 years from now, New Orleans will be a walled city, surrounded by water.
And that would be the best-case scenario, probably.
Yes. And the question would be, will New Orleans be survivable at that point? I expect it will be, because why does New Orleans exist? When Bienville and Iberville founded it, they placed it in its present location because it was the most defensible location against the English. Today it’s the same thing. The difference is, is it defensible against sea level rise? The reasons for its existence remain the same. It’s still the Southern end of the Mississippi River. It still provides the ability of serving offshore oil and gas, for as long as that lasts, as well as the port and the shipping industry upriver.
I asked this question of my friend Steven Bingler a while back: If you were 30 years old, would you sign a 30-year mortgage for a house in New Orleans? How would you answer that question?
[Laughs] I would not have a problem signing a 30-year mortgage, with proper insurance and the recognition that it’s got a 26% chance of being flooded in the 30-year period. I’ve already done that: I lived in Lakeview. My home had 15 feet of water during Katrina. I now live in Metairie [a suburb] in a house that has never flooded … yet.
Featured image via CNBC. Other photos courtesy of Mark Schleifstein.