hurricanes and other disasters

From: Tjalle T Vandergraaf <>
Date: Tue Oct 25 2005 - 22:16:34 EDT

Ruth et al.,

I'm taking you up on your request in the Nov/Dec of the ASA Newsletter,
although, as you indicated in your e-mail to me, there was a very brief
flurry of activity in this forum on the topic of hurricanes and New Orleans.
The whole discussion took all of six days in September and on the next day
everybody rested. The flame flickered for that long and then went out.
Perhaps, with the havoc created in Florida by Wilma there is an impetus to
revisit this topic. If my attempt falls flat, we'll know that either
everything on this topic has been said, or the topic itself has no place in
this forum.

I've been absent from this forum ever since I retired last year April and,
since I was not getting much out of the "never ending story on creationism,"
saw little need to get back on.

No need to go over the same ground again, but there are a few points I want
to make.

Terry Gray wrote:
"Finally, from an engineer's perspective what's the difference between New
Orleans and the Netherlands? Is it fewer storms? Better engineering?"

Never having been in New Orleans (but having seen a lot on TV) but having
lived in The Netherlands (and remembering the flood in the early 1950s that
killed some 1700 people), my guess is that The Netherlands do not experience
the severity of storms that the US Gulf Coats saw. The winds blow strong
(in The Netherlands) and often from the NW, at right angles to the west
coast. Engineering is probably better than around New Orleans but the real
estate in The Netherlands that is vulnerable to flooding forms a
considerable percentage of the country and spending more money is probably
justified. Richard Blinne is correct in that the land that was flooded in
the Netherlands was mainly farmland but that was half a century ago and the
population has increased since then.

Janice Matchett wrote a very insightful response and covered a lot of bases.
It's true that the Mississippi has been (and is) a cheap way to get from the
US heartland to the coast and that New Orleans is vital to this distribution
route. But, as we now start to realize, there are hidden costs. From a
Christian perspective, should we not insist that we make arrangement so
that, if the port of New Orleans is that vital to the US economy, the US
supports the city in such a sway that people who work there can also live
there? In other words, the cost of shipping corn from Iowa to New Orleans
should include a surcharge to ensure that the levees or whatever is needed
to keep the population safe can be maintained. If not, is it responsible
for Christians to expect workers to live in an unsafe area?

I agree with Glen Morton (I usually do) that engineering around the problem
is probably futile in the long run. In addition to dewatering the delta,
rising sea levels have to be taken into consideration. Now, not all of New
Orleans was flooded and an interim solution could be to give up on the parts
that are prone to flooding and resettle people on higher ground, even if
this is some distance from the port (no point throwing good money after
bad). I don't see why a satellite city could not be built, say, 25 km from
New Orleans and be connected with the port via LRT.

Ruth posed the following questions: "Holland is an important parallel. Why
doesn't it look like a disaster waiting to happen? Or does it, if you live
in Europe? A couple
details: 1) is Amsterdam below sea level? My understanding is most of the
lowlying land is farmland, not heavily populated. 2) what's the strongest
storm one can expect in the Northeast Atlantic? Hurricanes very rarely make
it to England, and England is itself a buffer for France, Belgium and
Holland from nasty high-wind storms. But hurricanes are a fact of life in
the Gulf. Amsterdam is very much older than New Orleans--a longer history to
count storms over."

Amsterdam is well below sea level. My old atlas shows it 4.9 m below sea
level. However, it is some distance from the North Sea. I think the fact
that, since flooding is a frequent danger, instead of relatively rare
hurricane events in the US, the amount of engineering in the US is less, as
dictated by risk analysis. A Dutch geologist once told me that the water
table in The Netherlands is kept artificially high to prevent the land from
cracking and slumping. Hurricanes don't make it that far North and the
strongest winds tend to come from the NW. England does form a buffer of
sorts but I understand that it also diverts the winds and channels it
towards the islands that make up Zeeland and the Wadden Islands (which is
why those islands are where they are).

Now, since Katrina, the US has had Rita and Wilma and the questions remain:
to what extent should engineering be seen as the solution, what is the
responsibility of an individual and what is the role of the state?

Before you take me to task as a foreigner who meddles in internal US
problems, let me hasten to say that we, in Canada, have our won problems
with siting cities. Winnipeg is located at the confluence of two meandering
rivers, the Assiniboine and the Red. Winnipeg is located on a very broad
flood plain and, what is worse, is one of those rivers that flow from the
south to the north. In the early spring, the source thaws before the mouth,
and we tend to get flooding. In 1950, much of the city was flooded. The
engineering solution was to build a floodway around the city. This has
worked well, although diverting some of the flow from the Red into the
floodway tends to flood homes and farms upstream. The most recent "close
call" (1997) has prompted a program to widen the floodway. This process is
starting this year. Now, was it a bad idea to site Winnipeg there? In the
1800s, there was a good reason to put Winnipeg there but I can no longer see
any valid reason not to move Winnipeg to higher ground. Will it happen?
Not in my lifetime! Instead of building a satellite city, suburbs are
If, as Janice Matchett wrote, "New Orleans is not optional for the United
States' commercial infrastructure. It is a terrible place for a city to be
located, but exactly the place where a city must exist. With that as a
given, a city will return there because the alternatives are too
devastating. The harvest is coming, and that means that the port will have
to be opened soon. As in Iraq, premiums will be paid to people prepared to
endure the hardships of working in New Orleans. But in the end, the city
will return because it has to." I would suggest, as I did earlier, that the
premium be sufficiently high to allow the workers a decent living standard.
This may mean that the farmers who rely on the Old Man River to ship their
grain and the industrialists who use the river to ship their products
subsidize the insurance for the dock workers or the building of proper
barriers to prevent future disasters. If the city "must exist" then those
who insist this, should underwrite the costs and not pass them on to the
A similar argument can be made for Florida. To what extent should society
be responsible for those who choose to live in an area that is vulnerable to
natural disasters? Should there be a difference for those who need to live
there and those who want to live there? If I move to Florida to retire
there, and my house gets blown into the next county, should I be taken care
of by society? If enough people retire to Florida and require services,
should the people who provide those services be compensated by society or do
the retirees are an added responsibility?
Anyway, I hope I have kindled a bit of a fire and hope to see some
responses. To me, the issue is not so much the engineering aspects but one
of corporate responsibility. As Christians, we need to see where we can
Tjalle T (Chuck)Vandergraaf
Adjunct Professor
Physical and Environmental Science
Providence College
Otterburne, MB
Received on Tue Oct 25 22:20:12 2005

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