Colonel Lewis F. Setliff III
Commander/District Engineer, St. Louis District
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and became one of the largest natural disasters in the history of the United States. It resulted in more than 1,800 deaths and more than $150 billion in damages. Katrina’s storm surge measured up to 30 feet along the Mississippi coast, with winds at 127 miles per hour when it made landfall in Louisiana. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans was under water. In the aftermath of Katrina, Colonel Lewis F. Setliff III of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was selected to command Task Force Guardian, the team responsible for restoring New Orleans’ flood and hurricane protection system to its pre-storm levels before the 2006 hurricane season began.

In the following perspective, Colonel Setliff describes the challenges his team — and local contractors — faced in accomplishing their almost impossible goal of providing a measurably stronger level of protection to the city of New Orleans in a compressed time frame. (Colonel Setliff originally prepared this account of the restoration project for SolidWorks World 2007 in February in New Orleans.)

Colonel Lewis F. Setliff III

I want to emphasize two things. The first is to appreciate the scale and magnitude of the engineering effort that was required after Hurricane Katrina. It was an effort that rivaled the building of the Panama Canal. Second is to appreciate the strategic significance of the engineering work we were trying to do.

Before Katrina, there already were three strikes against the City of New Orleans. Strike one: it is a city surrounded by water. You have Lake Pontchartrain to the north, Lake Warren to the northeast, and the Gulf of Mexico to the east, west, and south. Strike two is the topography of the city. The predominant portions of the metropolitan area reside below sea level. Think about that: you’re surrounded by water and your city is predominantly below sea level. Strike three is the fact that the soils around New Orleans, unlike any other city in the country, are very different and that means the city sinks — it subsides at a rate of feet over decades, not inches over centuries. You have a city surrounded by water that is predominantly below sea level that sinks. Not a very good situation.

So what happened? Two very large storms, Katrina and Rita, were brewing in the Gulf of Mexico at Category 5. Some people said that when it hit the mainland, Katrina was only a Category 3. But these storms spent a significant amount of time in the Gulf of Mexico increasing in energy. What did the damage? Water. The storms pushed a tremendous amount of water onto the Gulf Coast, including Mississippi.

Hurricane Katrina was not the “perfect storm.” It actually hit to the east of New Orleans. But the momentum and inertia of the water that was generated by the energy of the storm pushed a tremendous storm surge against the Gulf Coast, specifically in New Orleans. Three weeks later, another Category 5 was in the Gulf and went to the west of New Orleans. Generally speaking, it didn’t do much damage because of the tremendous amount of damage Katrina had already done. Rita came through and basically poured salt in the wounds of an already catastrophically impacted city.

Maximum flooding depths ranged from 8 to 15 feet over entire neighborhoods. Eighty percent of the city was under water, and it wasn’t under water for hours, or even days. It was under water for weeks in the middle of summer in 100° temperatures. You can imagine what that would do to your infrastructure. It was absolutely catastrophic, and I’m not sure even that word explains what happened. The economic damages were substantial. It’s hard to imagine what those numbers were. The infrastructure damage alone was more than $75 billion dollars, with hundreds of billions of dollars in economic loss.

This was a very tragic storm of intense magnitude that overwhelmed the hurricane protection system that was designed to protect the city. The city was under mandatory evacuation orders, but there were several thousand people that elected not to evacuate. Unfortunately, when the hurricane protection system — a very complicated system of levees, floodwalls, floodgates, and pumps that surround the city — were overwhelmed, those people were at the mercy of Hurricane Katrina.

What you had, again, was a city surrounded by water that was predominantly under water and sinking over time, protected by earthen levees 15 to 18 feet high with floodwalls of similar height. There were 76 pumping stations that were required to pump rainwater out of the city. It had a very complex, defensive, protective system that had evolved over centuries. The first levees in New Orleans were built in the 1700s, so it was completely overwhelmed by the hurricane.

This photo shows the maximum flooding depths around downtown New Orleans following Katrina’s

There are 350 miles of levees and floodwalls that protect New Orleans. Over two-thirds of those levees and floodwalls were damaged; several were catastrophically destroyed and failed to exist. Of the 76 pumping stations that the city relied on to pump water out, 66 of them were inoperable. And the energy source for all 76 was inoperable. The gated structures that control the tidal fluctuations out of the Gulf of Mexico became ineffective because the water had overflowed and eroded the land on either side. So the system that was there to serve and protect New Orleans was in disarray, it was inoperable, and it was dysfunctional.

That became my mission: to fix 220 miles of levees and floodwalls, to restore the pump stations to their effectiveness so the city could recover, and repair the gated structures. I summarize a very lengthy process that came down from The White House that said, in my words, “a very big storm, awful lot of damage, go fix it.”

Constructing a Plan

We had a plan, and this had been rehearsed. What we did not anticipate was the scope, the scale, and the magnitude of the damages that we would have to physically restore. What this required was for us to rewrite the books. The Corps of Engineers has been around for a long time — 227 years. We haven’t always operated the same way, but generally speaking, we did a very sequential engineering process that we learned in school: Assess, design, construct. But we realized that with the amount of damage we were talking about, we could do that, but we would probably be done in about 30 years, which is what it took to build the original protection system that was destroyed when Katrina hit.

It was a very unique challenge. We had to operate in an environment that was unexpected. There was no infrastructure and no power. There was water that you couldn’t drink, and on top of all that, we had to bring in what we thought would be an army of contractors to do the work and yet, there was no infrastructure — no roads and no housing to support them. We had to build our own camps and we had to ask our contractors to build their own camps and bring trailers with power and water to each one of these project sites just to facilitate their work.

We had companies that wanted to go to work, but their employees had evacuated, and we had companies who wanted to go to work and had employees, but their vehicles were under water. We had to marry these two just to get things done. We had to act as a government representative first, but we also had to act as a representative of the City of New Orleans, which needed this work done before the next hurricane season started on June 1 — just nine months away.