lpsrocks's Blog


Rockville, Maryland,
web developer, NOLA native, mom of two, concerned citizen living apparently waaaayyy too close to the Beltway, as I have become part of the "chattering classes"... just a political junkie, I guess...concerned about the environment, the wetlands, and keeping the world safe for democracy... no wonder we can't sleep at night...


FEBRUARY 16, 2009 12:17AM

Government Projects Gone Bad: MRGO & Hurricane Katrina

Rate: 17 Flag


As I write this, the stimulus package has passed both Houses of Congress to the tune of $787 Billion. I’m no economist, but as a citizen, I am both relieved and worried. My progressive side is relieved that long-ignored infrastructure and energy projects are getting attention. I am also hopeful that this infusion of government money will help avoid an even greater recession/depression than otherwise. But, like many of you, I am skeptical. I question how effective and efficient “shovel-ready” projects can be, am cynical about how priorities are set and by whom, and doubt that the money will be spent as wisely as it could be.

It is within the context of this huge plan that I was reminded recently of a government infrastructure project gone spectacularly bad. I am, of course, talking about the flooding of the city of New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. One might dispute the wisdom of building a city in a bowl or whether folks should have settled there or depended on the levees. What is not under dispute is that THE LEVEES FAILED.

The levees, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the city, failed when tested. Most of us remember the news footage of the levee break at the 17th Street Canal, which separates Orleans parish (New Orleans) from Jefferson (Metairie – its closest suburb to the West). The video showed the huge gap in the levee wall and a striking image – one side of the canal under water; the other green and dry.

What is less well-known is what happened on the other side of the City. On the Eastern side of New Orleans and now-famous lower 9th ward and St. Bernard parish, the levees were breached and failed at multiple points. Almost all of eastern New Orleans was hit by a surge of over 9 to 10 feet of water. Several experts, and most citizens, believe that the existence of a shipping channel, called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) played a key role in the failure.


Photo Credit:  By Mannie Garcia – Reuters
Photo from Washington Post Article, by Michael Grunwald

Canal May Have Worsened City's Flooding
Disputed Project Was a 'Funnel' for Surge, Some Say

NOTE: Feel free to skip directly to the Katrina photos, if you aren't interested in the details of MR-GO.

Wikipedia describes MR-GO:

The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal (also known as MRGO, MR-GO or "Mr. Go") is a 76 mi (122 km) channel that provides a shorter route between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans's inner harbor. The canal extends from north of New Orleans (between it and Lake Pontchartrain) then takes a path SSE through wetlands to the Gulf of Mexico ending near Gardner Island. After much criticism for negative environmental effects, such as erosion and increased storm surge during Hurricane Katrina, it has been decided to fill in the channel.


Maps courtesy of Nashvillewx.com
New Orleans: “MRGO Must Go!”
By Davis Nolan
September 2nd, 2008

Levees along MR-GO were breached in approximately 20 places along its length, directly flooding most of Saint Bernard Parish and New Orleans East. Storm surge from MR-GO is also a leading suspect in the three breaches of the Industrial Canal.

Three months before Katrina, Hassan Mashriqui, a storm surge expert at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center, called MR-GO a "critical and fundamental flaw" in the Corps' hurricane defenses, a "Trojan Horse" that could amplify storm surges 20 to 40 percent. Following the storm, an engineering investigation and computer modelling showed that the outlet intensified the initial surge by 20 percent, raised the height of the wall of water about three feet, and increased the velocity of the surge from 3 feet per second (0.9 m/s) to 8 feet per second (2.4 m/s) in the funnel. Mashriqui believes this contributed to the scouring that undermined the levees and floodwalls along the outlet and Industrial Canal. "Without MRGO, the flooding would have been much less," he said. "The levees might have overtopped, but they wouldn't have been washed away."

The Army Corps of Engineers disputes this causality and maintains Katrina would have overwhelmed the levees with or without the contributing effect of MR-GO.
-from Wikipedia

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on January 31, 2009 that work to close MR-GO had begun.  It is expected to be completed by mid-summer, the middle of the hurricane season. Environmentalists see closing the shipping channel as a small step in restoring the marsh wetlands and delta basin.

Carlton Dufrechou, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, flew over the work Friday afternoon and was ecstatic.

"This is a bright doggone day for the coast," he said. "It's one little rinky-dink project in the grand scope of things, but this will start to restore the natural hydrology, the natural plumbing.

"The coast finally has a chance to start healing itself."

Goodbye MR-GO: Work begins to close shortcut to Gulf of Mexico
Saturday, January 31, 2009
By Bob Warren
St. Bernard bureau

Finally, to further establish context, here are some personal photos of Katrina’s damage to New Orleans, particularly New Orleans East and the lower 9th ward and St. Bernard. For the record, I grew up in New Orleans East – I haven’t lived there for many years, but my mother was still living in my childhood home at the time of Katrina – and I have many other relatives and friends who had various degrees of water and wind damage (luckily no deaths or injuries as they’d all evacuated).

These photos were taken in November 2005, when I visited the city for the first time after the storm.

First, the city nearest the 17th Street Canal Levee Break

17th Street Canal


Some of the damaged houses -

House on Pontchartrain Expressway


robert e lee

A house where my grandmother once lived. You can see the water line as well as the door markings as military and officials were checking for people and pets that might be inside.


Near the levee



Moving to East New Orleans, inside my mother's house


Dining Room

Formal Living and Dining Room





What was once my bedroom



The mold up-close


Family room - or what we call the "den" - photo of my nephews on the mantle and complete World Book Encyclopedia, circa 1977, in the bookcase

gold chair

Ugly gold chair up close. Don't worry - it was always ugly!

bride and groom

from Mom & Dad's 25th wedding anniversary


and here's me, about to go in


and here are the Hazmat guys down the street


Some odds & ends from the lower 9th ward & Chalmette



Fats Domino's house

Flat House


Jackson Barracks

Jackson Barracks - where the National Guard stored their weapons and equipment during the storm. 


Finally, returning to the 17th Street Canal - repairs had already begun


Levee Construction




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well, shit, is anybody up?
I'm up. What an affecting story through photos. I share your skepticism in general about government spending efforts -- my progressive side like yours thinks it's necessary and wise, but there are so many obstacles to good use that I'm just as wary. But I hope that this plan will enable not just larger scale investments monetarily in the NO area, but larger thinking about the projects. There's more than $5 billion allocated to the Corps of Engineers, and an additional $375,000,000 specifically for the Mississippi and its tributaries. So... let's hope that's going to find its way into a better organized plan for fixing the city and preventing future catastrophe.
You've described exactly how I feel - relieved and worried. I really have to say thanks. I wasn't aware of the MRGO as a catalyst in the destruction. Makes sense though, looking at it now. People had tunnel-vision on those levees, I'm glad they've discovered and are correcting the other roots to the problem.

New Orleans has always been a kind city to me and it's heartbreaking still to see the destruction. I'm glad your family and friends got out safely.

Let the good times roll.
Saturn - thanks. You raise a good point about infrastructure money being needed to restore the Delta. I know that Senator Mary Landrieu has been working really hard to get funding for wetlands restoration - which is sorely needed.

To illustrate the point, Louisiana loses about 40 square miles of marsh per year (not counting what happened in Katrina & Rita) or a total of about 2000 square miles in the last 100 years.

What this means IN REAL LIFE is that the Gulf is a whole lot closer than it used to be. My dad (who was an oyster fisherman by trade) had a fishing camp when I was young, that was out in the bayou. Every now and then, we'd go out to the gulf for deep-sea fishing. It took an hour or two to get there from the camp.

A couple of years ago, I went out on my cousin's boat from Port Sulphur. I asked him to point out Daddy's camp and he laughed (in a sad way) saying it was no longer there. Also, it seemed like only about 20 minutes later we were in the gulf. Communities that once existed along the delta are no longer there and some, since Katrina, are not viable.

It is a difficult problem - the levees contributed to the destruction of the delta, yet, they are necessary to protect populations. Another instance of unintended consequences.
Julie - thanks for your kind words. I think alot of people have wonderful memories of New Orleans and want to see it restored. It HAS come a long way since 2005, but there are whole areas in East New Orleans and St. Bernard parish that lay devastated.

A lot of fisherman in New Orleans and St. Bernard had been worried and angry for years about MRGO. I'm no physicist, but the dynamics of it - just a straight pipe from the gulf to the lake - seemed to be setting the table for disaster.
wow, what an important piece. This represents so much lps, not the least of which is that it is a tremendous amount of work and heart you've put into it. But much more importantly, we need to have these images, this type of parsing alive and visible. But much as OS is a medium of the moment, things vanishing here in an instant, with little thought or effort given to resurrecting anything but what is most current, the tragedy of Katrina is assigned a false comprehension. People still need to know, and be smacked around with it, that it represents such a colossal breakdown and failure of a social contract. Thank you so much for this. I know it's a personal look, but this piece transcends that, I wish it would get picked up by a national outlet...even ported over to Regular Salon would be a good start.
This makes me so angry. How can there still be so much devastation 3-1/2 years later? The pictures of your family home are particularly heart-wrenching. I do hope that the stimulus money will be used wisely, but I fear that it will be mismanaged like everything else our government touches. Accountability will be crucial. Thanks for this excellent article, Lisa.
Barry - your comment re: Katrina -

People still need to know, and be smacked around with it, that it represents such a colossal breakdown and failure of a social contract.

YES! YES! YES! and thank you.

I am glad that people still visit New Orleans and spend time in the French Quarter and Uptown/St. Charles Avenue. But, I am galled when visitors say it looks fine and it's all back to normal. I am ambivalent (like I am about many things, clearly) about the bus tours to devastation, but I also think people NEED to see and know what happened and understand HOW it happened and make damn sure it never happens again. whew!
Lisa - thank you for the comments.

Gosh, I'm struggling as to how to respond to your question. The whole reconstruction effort merits its own post, at least, - if not full book-length analysis. I think it's a combination of successes (individual, community, some government) and failures (moral hazard, government leaders avoiding tough decisions).

I, for one, was in favor of an overall coordinated plan to shrink the city footprint and beef up services and protection from neighborhoods moving outward. But, I also understand the difficulties - how can you tell people they can't rebuild their homes (especially if they have insurance money and the wherewithal to do so)? Plus, many people had started (and completed) rebuilding before the government figured out what they were doing.

So, in short, it has been a very individualistic and piece-meal process, especially in vast areas of New Orleans East and Gentilly. The good news is that the government has "bought out" many of the vacant homes (including my mom's) through the Road-Home Program.

What's next is an open question.
i hope they get the funding for those wetland projects. prez bush finally went down to NO and promised a lot of help which was total bs that he didn't even try to deliver.

i went down there 1.5 years after the flooding and was shocked at how little had changed--but encouraged by the drive that people there had to make it happen.

my post and pix about it at the time here: http://www.dartcenter.org/mission_possible/labels/Dave%20Cullen.html

i worked with a group from the paper, the Times-Picayune, who i really came to love.

(just before i arrived, they got hit by a tornado right in an area being renovated. ouch. the group i was with did some work there.)
How this doesn't get the attention it needs is truly mind-boggling. I hope someone in Washington is awake.
Wonderful story Lisa. Great photos.

"Environmentalists see closing the shipping channel as a small step in restoring the marsh wetlands and delta basin."

Agreed on the above quote, and I'm pretty sure the humanitarian in all of us will be glad to see this done away with as well and the marsh lands to absorb the storm surges restored. All those lost lives for nothing.

I lived through (and lost my roof to) hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. One out of four houses in my county had blue tarps for roofs even two years later). People assume that once the electricity comes back on, everything returns to "normal" but anyone who survives these things knows otherwise. Katrina was far more devastating to me as a witness. Watching our slow. to. react. government. quasi. president with his smarmy grin caused me so much sadness and made me anguish for the people who have seemingly been long forgotten. It seems to me, we just don't learn in this country. We just move on. Sometimes, we HAVE to remember whether we like it or not. We do it for 9/11 but somehow value the victims of Katrina as less. Until we learn to value ALL people, we will repeat the same mistakes. Thanks for reminding us all.
Dave - oh yes, few New Orleanians will forget Bush standing in Jackson Square promising to put the entire power of the federal government behind the rebuilding effort.

What's funny about that is that people (?) on the nola.com blog were LIVID that Obama's Presidential web page had the gall to write that Bush had lied about rebuilding New Orleans. Did I miss something?

I'll check out your photos. Maybe you can make that your next book project :-) I'd love to collaborate with you on it!

Thanks for the personal view, Lisa, and for bringing it to our attention again. How is it that the big story keeps getting pushed out of our consciousness, when so much of it is still ongoing? What a continuing tragedy.
screamin mama', greg & cartouche - thank you all so much for commenting.

I think cartouche said it quite well - It seems to me, we just don't learn in this country. We just move on.

Another paradox - we want and need to move on. You know, progress and it's wonderful to see the progress that has been made in New Orleans. I celebrated the first Mardi Gras and first Jazz Fest after the storm and have watched as friends and family rebuild their homes and lives.

But...I do hope we learn from it. I'm sure the engineering issues are more complex than I could ever understand, but the real question is whether the commitment is there or not. I'm not convinced.
The pictures look exactly like my own house.

I've written about MR GO before in my own blog, but I'm not sure if I cross-posted all of that to Open Salon.

One of the things that has always bothered me about the criticism that NOLA is below sea level is that it misses an essential point: New Orleans used to be many miles from the Gulf. Now the Gulf is almost on its doorstep, thanks to the tremendous amount of coastal erosion courtesy of MR GO.

Our house wasn't below sea level. It was about +4 feet, and we still got 11 feet of water in our house. This is the work of MR GO.

The coastal erosion of the LA coast is mainly from dreadful land management by the U.S government. It should scare all Americans that this has happened. As you suggested in your essay, how can we expect the government to contend with issues like global warming, pollution, land preservation, and endangered species, when it can't even remedy the erosion problem in Louisiana, and in fact has done so much to make it worse?

New Orleans is in rough shape, but it is nothing compared to St. Bernard, where I used to live. St. Bernard is a shell of its former self. It's hard to explain, but the spirit of the place is completely gone. There are people living there now, but the community is shattered -- it is not the same place. At least NOLA has reconstituted itself and still has many of its old carnival krewes, and restaurants, and social groups. All of that is gone in St. Bernard, and MRGO is mostly responsible for it.

In our history, the U.S. destroyed many Indian nations, some of them forever. The cultures, language, way of life, all gone. You might think this country would look back on mistakes like that and take care to try to piece together the culture decimated but its own handiwork in MR GO, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Though I am still an American and proud to be, what happened with MRGO and St. Bernard has permanently changed how I feel towards my own country.
Every single day, I get the tourist that complains about how third-world the city is and how it seems like the storm just hit and how the hotel didn't return their dry cleaning on time.

I lived in mid-City pre-Katrina. We got three feet of flooding in my section. Luckily, I was on the second floor of a building built on 2.5 foot pilings, so we basically just had to replace the carpet and first few feet of drywall downstairs. I left on Aug. 28, the storm hit Aug.. 29, electricity and drinking water (but not gas or phone) were restored to my place on Oct. 11, and I returned on Oct. 18.

I was the only neighbor in a four-block radius. Fridges on every corner. A burned-out car at the foot of the stairs. Moldy drywall everywhere. No garbage pickup, sporadic blackouts, no streetlights, no transit, and NOTHING open until you got down to the French Quarter. So every day for weeks I'd hike past all the fridges and body-search markings the 25 blocks down Esplanade with my laptop in my backpack to use the internet at Cafe Envie, where there'd be people sitting cross-legged on the floor using their wireless signal because even cell phones didn't always work. Then I'd hike back home, unload the laptop, hike back to the Quarter to the A&P on St. Peter and Royal, fill up with groceries, and hike back to the apartment.

It took three weeks of searching to find a place that was open and had Phillips screwdrivers in stock so I could fix the door on my new fridge. Jeff Parish wasn't as badly hit, and I'd learned through the grapevine that there were some buses running from downtown New Orleans to the Westbank, where I finally found one in a Vietnamese dollar store way the hell out at the end of Manhattan Boulevard in Harvey, LA.

I had no laundry facilities in my building. The nearest operational ones were--you guessed it--in the French Quarter. So I loaded up the little rolly cart with four loads of laundry and set off into the sunset. That's a five-mile round trip, pulling 40 lbs of laundry over and around garbage, oiles of moldy 2x4s, dead dogs and cats, you name it.

Luckily, I did not come across any dead human bodies.

So it's hard for me to be civil about the dry-cleaning at the Marriott.

Sorry. Got off topic. Great post. Thank you for sharing these pictures. People truly do not realize the level of devastation.
We lived for many years in Lakeview. My husband's brother still lives in that area. Last year we went back for an extended visit. It was heart breaking.
Michael - thank you for your thoughtful comment. The devastation in St. Bernard has been awful and is a forgotten issue in the minds of most Americans.

I haven't seen your previous writings about MR-GO; I'll have to seek out your other blog. Closing it is only a first step, of course, but I am skeptical that any land restoration projects will be too little, too late.

Your point about the gulf moving closer is well-taken. Along with Chalmette and all of St. Bernard, down-river communities like Port Sulphur (where my dad used to keep his oyster boat) and Buras, have also disappeared along with ways of life.

I could also rant for days about what the oil companies and shipping and pollution have done to the oyster, shrimping, and fishing industries, but I'll save that for another post.
Leeandra - ah, the great N'awlins paradox - tourists - can't live with them, can't live without them

My mom grew up in mid-city and I spent a great deal of my childhood there at my grandmother's house, three blocks from St. Anthony. It was hit pretty hard by Katrina, too. My sister and her husband had just bought a house (a double) on Banks St. about 3 months before the storm. They also had about 3 feet (theirs was raised as well) and the renovations took a loooongg time. Luckily, they were able to stay with relatives and then got a trailer. But, it was scary as they were the only ones on their block for awhile.

I completely feel for you living in the eerie, alien place that New Orleans was in the months after the storm. Most of my family were putting their houses and lives back together in Metairie, but it was still a crap-shoot on any given day what might be open or whether Home Depot would have what they needed.

And, thumbs up on the A&P in the Quarter. We used to go there as teenagers (!) on our way to Pat O's to buy Ranch dressing packets to send to my boyfriend's sister who was studying in Europe. Another totally New Orleans idiosyncracy, I'm sure.

The city has come a long way, but I'm afraid it's not nearly enough. Thanks for your comment.

I love New Orleans.
Unlike you I didn't have to suffer the effects of the hurricane/bad
levee policies directly , but I was there Jan06 to May 07 working.
I saw all these scenes and have my own pics. My heart breaks
for all the people and I met very many. Thanks for the great
analysis and personal experience.
Thanks for steering me to this well-written piece and commentary.

"The city has come a long way, but I'm afraid it's not nearly enough."

Some say that NO will take ten years or more to fully recover, if then.