When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the levees and floodwalls around New Orleans largely failed, sending water gushing into the city.
More than 50 levee locations were breached by the storm. Roughly 80 percent of the city and 95 percent of St. Bernard Parish were flooded.
In some areas of the city, like the Lower Ninth Ward, the water grew as deep as 15 feet, according to History.com. Over 1,500 people died in Katrina. Many of them drowned.
In 2009, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had failed to properly maintain and operate the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. That and levee failures by Lake Pontchartrain caused most of the flooding, the Associated Press reports.
New Orleans Levees Underwent Massive Renovation
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Congress spent $14.5 billion on the new Hurricane & Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, an epic collection of levees, gates, walls and pumps. It forms a 130-mile ring around lower New Orleans. And it’s made to withstand storm surges of up to 30 feet.
The Army Corps of Engineers constructed the upgraded system. It is one of the largest public works projects in the world, according to Reuters.
Still, the Army Corps has acknowledged the need for further upgrades. In 2019, it cautioned that the earthen levees will need to be reinforced. They have been losing height due to rising sea levels. They have also been sinking into the soft soil of the Gulf region.
Hurricane Ida Did Not Breach the Upgraded Levees
At its peak, Hurricane Ida was a Category 4 storm. And it amounted to the upgraded levee system’s first real test. So far, the system seems to have held its own.
“The levee system and the flood system today is much, much better and much, much stronger than it was in Katrina,” Kelli Chandler, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, which operates the levee system, told Reuters.
“The system performed as designed,” Nicholas Cali, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, told the AP.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said that on first glance, levees across the state managed to hold water out, the federal levee system in New Orleans in particular.
“We don’t believe there is a single levee anywhere now that actually breached or failed. There were a few smaller levees that were overtopped to a degree for a certain period of time,” Edwards told the AP.
Meanwhile, work has recently started on a new levee project that would shield the residents of LaPlace, which was hit hard by Hurricane Ida, and other areas that fall outside the federal hurricane risk reduction system. The project is scheduled to wrap up in 2024.