Flood-prone New Orleans learns to live with water

NEW ORLEANS: On a gray afternoon, a city worker tends plants on an undulating plot of grass known as a “rain garden”. It’s strategically placed on the corner of two streets in Gentilly, a quiet residential district in northeast New Orleans.
The garden can absorb up to 89,000 gallons of rainwater, which it then releases gradually into the city’s drainage system, easing pressure on the network and reducing the risk of flooding.
It is one small example of the “green infrastructure” city authorities are planning much more of as part of New Orleans’ effort to boost its ability to cope with extreme weather and other impacts of climate change.
“Water is our existential threat,” Jeff Herbert, New Orleans’ chief resilience officer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
His office in City Hall is just across the street from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where thousands of survivors sheltered in grim conditions after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
That storm, which killed more than 1,800 people, wreaked most of its damage after levees meant to protect the city broke, unleashing water that flooded around 80 per cent of the city.
“It was an infrastructure failure — and it’s because we were heavily reliant on the gray infrastructure,” said Herbert, explaining how the city famous for its jazz musicians has since moved away from depending simply on concrete walls and pumping stations to stay safe.
He attributes that change to the shock of Katrina — which displaced some 130,000 people, mostly from poor areas where some have never returned — and to a growing understanding of how the natural defences of the coastline, such as swamps, had been largely destroyed by a building boom since the 1950s.
“All those things started coming together after Katrina, and we knew we had to live a different way, and we had to start living with water again,” said Herbert, who is also deputy mayor.
Learning anew how to work with the natural environment is not unique to Louisiana, he noted, but a growing trend in many parts of the world from China to the Netherlands.
— Reuters