Development of the New Orleans Flood Protection System Prior to Hurricane Katrina


The system of flood protection surrounding New Orleans and its adjoining parishes prior to Hurricane Katrina evolved over a period of 280 years. The earliest drainage works sought to elevate the river's natural levees and excavate drainage canals leading towards Bayou St. John, the only natural break across the Metairie-Gentilly distributary ridge. An extensive zone of Cypress Swamps occupied the levee flank depression between the ridge and Lake Pontchartrain. 58 km of drainage canals were excavated across the natural levee backslope and through the swamp depressions bordering the lake between 1833 and 1878. These canals sought to drain the lower portions of the city, which suffered periodic outbreaks of yellow fever, which killed more than 100,000 people during the 19th century. The city has not suffered flooding from the Mississippi River since 1895, most damaging floods having emanated from hurricane surge off of Lake Pontchartrain. Since 1559, 177 hurricanes have struck the Louisiana coastline. A system of pump stations was constructed between 1895 and 1927, which pump water into the river, the lake, and adjacent bayous. The cypress swamps were replaced by the Lakeview and Gentilly residential districts, built after 1945. This old swamp zone has settled as much as 3+ m since 1895. After 1927 the Army Corps of Engineers assumed a leadership role in providing flood control infrastructure, supervising the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project in 1931-1972. In 1955 the Corps role was expanded to include the City of New Orleans, which included maintaining capacity and freeboard of the old drainage canals. After a series of lawsuits between 1961 and 1977, the Corps was forced to employ concrete flood walls along the subsiding drainage canals. These walls were constructed in the 1990s, though some transition elements remained incomplete when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.


Geosciences and Geological and Petroleum Engineering


National Science Foundation (U.S.)

Keywords and Phrases

Canals; Floods; Hurricanes; Louisiana; Drainage; Excavation; Hurricane effects; Flood control subrastructure; Flood protection; failure analysis; Hurricane Katrina 2005; levee; nineteenth century; Louisiana; Mississippi River; New Orleans; North America; United States; Cupressus

Geographic Coverage

New Orleans, Louisiana

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Document Type

Article - Journal

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© 2008 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), All rights reserved.

Publication Date

01 May 2008


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