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Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

  • 1.  Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 08-30-2021 08:41 AM

    It will be days before we know the full extent of the devastation to Louisiana from Hurricane Ida as well as to the other states in the storm's path. Prompted by the eerie timing of Hurricane Ida's landfall, 16 years to the day from when Hurricane Katrina struck, I thought It was timely to pose the following questions.

    Are folks aware of the report prepared by the ASCE following Katrina titled What Went Wrong and Why? The report prepared by the Hurricane Katrina External Review Panel (ERP) offers an assessment of what happened to the New Orleans hurricane protection system as a result of Hurricane Katrina-and why it happened. A finding from this report: "The lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina also have profound implications for other American communities and a sobering message for people nationwide: we must place the protection of public safety, health, and welfare at the forefront of our nations priorities."

    The ERP report contains 10 calls to action (summarized below for convenience). Are the issues behind what went wrong and these suggested fixes limited to New Orleans, the USACE, or do they have more widespread implications? Can these issues happen elsewhere? For those in the know, have they been adequately addressed relative to the New Orleans hurricane protection system?

    Is what happened in New Orleans an example of what Bill Hayden in his excellent essay – referenced under the  Surfside Condo Collapse Peripheral Questions  thread – describes as being able to see in the dark? in brief, this is about normalizing behaviors and practices that fall on the fringe, or beneath ethical norms. The journal reference for convenience is "Ethics in Engineering Practice: How Easy It Becomes to See in the Dark," Leadership Manage. Eng., 2007, 7(4): 151-157

    I was living in River Ridge LA at the time Katrina. River Ridge is located between the airport and city but well outside the zone that was flooded by the failures to the hurricane and water retention systems that existed at the time. I took significant interest at the time in the multiple investigations that were conducted. While the USACE was responsible for the New Orleans Hurricane Protection System (or at least a large part of it) I think it pays for all of us to take notice of what happened and ask can it happen again somewhere else – under somebody else's watch - and how can it be prevented.

     

    ERP Report Calls to Action Summary

    Call to action Number 1: Keep safety at the forefront of public priorities.  All Responsible agencies in NO and throughout the nation should re-evaluate their policies and practices to ensure that protection of public safety, health and welfare is the top priority and the infrequent but potentially devastating impacts from hurricanes and flooding.

    Call to action Number 3:  Quantify the Risks. The USACE should complete the work necessary to quantify and effectively communicate the risk as soon as possible, and, because risk assessment and communication is not static, should periodically update the assessment of risk. This risk assessment approach should be extended to all areas of the nation that are vulnerable to major losses from hurricanes and flooding.

    Call to action Number 3:  Communicate the risks to the public and decide how much risk is acceptable. Local, state, and federal agencies should create and maintain quality programs of public risk communication in New Orleans and other areas threatened by hurricanes and flooding

    Call to action Number 4: Rethink the whole system, including land use in New Orleans.  Local, state, and federal leaders should review the overall strategy and systems approach, integrating hurricane protection tactics, land-use considerations, and emergency response strategies into  a coherent and well-thought-out system.

    Call to action Number 5: Correct the deficiencies. Local, state, and federal leaders should review the overall strategy and systems approach, integrating hurricane protection tactics, land-use considerations, and emergency response strategies into a coherent and well-thought-out system.

    Call to action Number 6: Put someone in charge. Local, state, and federal leaders should agree to assign to a single individual the responsibility for managing critical hurricane and flood protection systems such as the one in the New Orleans area.

    Call to action Number 7: Improve interagency coordination. All agencies involved in the hurricane protection system should implement far better and more effective mechanisms for coordination  and cooperation.

    Call to action Number 8: Upgrade engineering design procedures. The engineering community should review and update engineering design procedures for hurricane and flood protection systems to ensure that these updated procedures take all reasonable steps to protect the public safety, health, and welfare.

    Call to action Number 9: Bring in independent experts. Agencies responsible for design of hurricane and flood protection systems and other critical life-safety structures should engage independent experts in high-level review of every project.

    Call to action Number 10: Place safety first. ASCE, working in partnership with the USACE and other engineering organizations, should reinforce the need to place the safety, health, and welfare of the public first, and should communicate that public safety must always be the highest priority



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    Mitch Winkler P.E., M.ASCE
    Houston, TX
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  • 2.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 08-31-2021 03:05 PM

    The short answer is: apparently not.

    I am saying this – because back in April 2019 we discussed the issue on Collaborate. The discussion followed the April 11, 2019 E&E News – where the author claimed: New Orleans Levees Sinking after Massive Upgrading.

    ASCE's 10 calls to improve upon and learn from the catastrophic disaster caused by the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina (published in the Civil Engineering Magazine, 77(6), 2007) appear to be a general shopping list (although I presume, the EPR report itself have some details on the scientific justification of them). Because, the calls are something appear to be not much different than what one finds in most planning and design guidelines. By the way, the 10th call appears to be a (somewhat) repetition of the 1st call.

    -----

    Dilip

    Website

    ORCID ID

    Google Scholar



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    Dr. Dilip Barua, Ph.D, P.Eng, M. ASCE
    Vancouver, BC, Canada
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  • 3.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 09-16-2021 05:29 PM
    Thanks Dudley!  One interesting development in the whole field of risk management is the rapid advances in property-specific Risk Pricing (calculating the Expected Annual Cost and Present Value of probable future damages for any specific property).  As you pointed out, reasonable property-specific Flood Risk Pricing wasn't possible 50+ years ago at the inception of the NFIP--but it IS COMING SOON!  It is already routine as part of Due Diligence for commercial property and will likely be available  for residential property in a few years.  Think of FloodFactor (Find Your Home's Flood Risk | Flood Factor) only with $ instead of score!

    My guess is that Online Risk Pricing for all major residential property risks (wind, fire, utility outages, etc.) is just around the corner.  Along with that will be pressure for state insurance commissioners to improve the property insurance market--making sure it's not only financially sound, but that it offers good coverage options.  And most property owners will also demand actuarially fair prices.  Property owners/renters/investors etc. who's insurance premium for any particular hazard coverage should be very cheap (based on easy available Online Risk Pricing that says they have a very low $ risk) are going demand a cheap insurance premium for that coverage.

    The coming Online Risk Pricing Revolution will impact Due Diligence for residential property, and eventually the home mortgage industry, and the valuation of residential property, including .  For flood risk, simple reliance on NFIP requirements, NFIP quoted premiums, FIRMs, and other obsolete/distorted information will not suffice for legal standards of Due Diligence. Mortgage bond investors will be driving the standards for Due Diligence and they will want accurate Risk Pricing for the bonds.  Of course citizens who feel Online Risk Pricing is overstating their risk will  try to get their information re-evaluated.  (Local engineers will be asked to help their communities reduce overly-conservative risk estimates.)

    Eventually five benefits of widely available, decent quality, Online Risk Pricing for a range of hazards might be 1) less investment in higher risk property and less development of high risk areas; 2) greater insurance of marginal at-risk property--which is really important for "resiliency;" 3) prioritizing risk mitigation investments that are paid for with savings on insurance,  4) prioritizing between various hazard mitigation investments to get the most Priced Risk Reduction for the buck. 5) prioritizing of other government actions (e.g., regulations) to get the most Priced Risk Reduction bang for the buck.

    Of course the coming Online Risk Pricing Revolution will not be beneficial for those whose insurance premiums/property values will rise/fall drastically.  Those of us who believe we ought to help these folks (or some of them?) with their risk are going to have to advocate for ways that don't distort Risk Pricing and risk decisions.  Distorting Risk is one of the things that has got us into this mess!

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    Robert Jacobsen P.E., M.ASCE
    President
    Baton Rouge LA
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  • 4.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 09-06-2021 08:44 PM
    All--I am a past-president president of the Louisiana Section, have worked in hydrological risk (environmental, ecological, and flood) for 40 years, served as the lead hurricane surge analyst for the east-bank New Orleans regional levee district during the Corps' construction of the redesigned system, (with two major reports), and authored a 2-part article "Managing Hurricane Surge Risks in the Supercomputing Era, Part I: Pre-Katrina Evolution of Surge Hazard Estimation and Risk Management,  and Part II: Post-Katrina Progress and Limitations in Surge Hazard Estimation and Implications for Surge Risk Management" for the Louisiana Civil Engineer Journal.  I was also the lead author for "Hurricane Surge Hazard Uncertainty in Coastal Flood Protection Design (Journal of Dam Safety, 2015).  These reports, articles, and other related information can be found at my website:  www.bobjacobsenpe.com

    The most important thing to know about the rebuilt New Orleans hurricane sure system is that it was designed per Congressional authorization to reduce the cost of flood insurance--using the NFIP's emphasis on the 100-year flood level.  It features many important design innovations for that purpose, including several structural resiliency measures.  HOWEVER, it was NOT designed as a public safety system--i.e., it does NOT feature adequate factors of safety for officials to rely on the system in lieu of evacuation.  Evacuation of the polders is still the primary measure to provide for public safety. Hence the system is no longer referred to by the Corps or knowledgeable officials as a "protection system" but rather as a "damage risk reduction system."  NFIP rules require a re-assessment every 10 years of the system's damage risk reduction capability, along with construction of any necessary improvements to meet the 100-year flood threshold.  The Corps is currently completing this effort.  I believe the Corps' work since 2005 in addressing the goals set-forth by Congress has largely been very good.

    But now, if we want to provide for a truly sustainable and resilient  New Orleans, it is time to move beyond simplistic goals for NFIP surge mitigation and consider the implications of "sustainable and resilient" for all the natural hazards and their associated risks the region faces.

    I have long advocated that we should move beyond designing "surge damage risk reduction systems" based on an artificial 100-year threshold criteria.  Instead we should optimize surge mitigation based on the "Full-Spectrum" of surge frequencies and damage consequences.  In some cases this means higher/stronger systems.  But notably, in some areas this also means lower, weaker system can be acceptable.

    Furthermore--as part of a true "comprehensive optimized damage risk reduction system" ALL hazards and risks need to be placed on the table; such as consideration of wind damage to private property, wind damage to utilities and infrastructure, Mississippi River flood damage, and various types of extreme rainfall flood damages.  This calls for making investments in a sensible way that best reduces the total economic costs of natural hazards--without over or under investing in any particular mitigation effort.  As an example, at some point it makes more sense to investing in more forced-drainage capacity, hardening electric utilities, and back-up power for sewerage lift stations, than in higher, stronger surge levees.

    Moreover, to the extent evacuation is relied upon for public safety, a "comprehensive optimized risk reduction system" also MUST spell out for local officials just what operational elements are required under various circumstances--including evacuation and sheltering for many tens of thousands of elderly, disabled, and impoverished citizens. This includes the need to evacuate New Orleans even if the surge hazard is modest.

    Climate change is obviously bringing this topic into sharp focus for many communities around the nation. Thus, one last point:  it is critical to have the best estimates of climate trends--AND THE UNCERTAINTY IN THOSE TREND ESTIMATES--in undertaking a "comprehensive, optimized risk reduction system."

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    Robert Jacobsen P.E., M.ASCE
    President
    Baton Rouge LA
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  • 5.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 30 days ago
    All,

    Thank you to everyone who has replied to this thread.  I think that it is a worthwhile conversation because the processes of change are often slow and changes themselves are often born out on the regional or local level, outside of the national limelight.  Adding to Mr. Winkler's original post, ASCE also published a report in 2013, Addressing Flood Risk: A Call for A National Strategy, examining the progress made at the national level between 2005 and 2013.  The fact that ASCE felt the need to publish the 2013 report suggests that the issues are not limited to New Orleans and that they were not broadly addressed at the time in 2013.

    I believe the point of emphasis should be on Call to Action No. 4: Rethink the Whole System.  If this was taken on, the system put in place would be specifically designed to address calls to action nos. 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and likely 8 as well.  Looking nationally, although some progress has been made to address each of the calls within the federal government, the structure as a whole is still relatively the same as it was 15 years ago.  For instance, the National Committee on Levee Safety recommended the creation of a national levee safety program and a new agency to oversee it.  While the USACE does maintain the National Levee Portfolio, this is not the same as what NCLS envisioned.  A similar point could be made for dam safety at the national level.  As Calls to Action Nos. 6&7 highlight, one of the problems is that the responsibilities for risk management lie in many different agencies with no one individual to hold accountable.  Compounding this problem, as indicated by others in this thread, NFIP is not principally designed to mitigate flood risk, but establish minimum practices for flood insurance eligibility.  The former is accomplished along the way, but it is secondary.

    However, important changes are happening at the state and local levels. (I am not familiar with Louisiana or New Orleans, but would be very interested to hear from Mr. Jacobsen and others with local knowledge what policies have been put in place.)  Particularly, I would highlight Texas, North Dakota, Minnesota, and California, which have begun actively organizing stakeholders to address regional flood risks, often times in concert with other issues. (To my knowledge, North Dakota has actually been doing this since 2003, which was before Hurricane Katrina.) The concept of integrated regional watershed management--which combines flood risk, water supply, land conservation, and environmental issues--is one that has great promise for addressing each of these concerns in a holistic way.  Moreover, these states are actively engaging stakeholders in the effort to prioritize projects that deliver the greatest regional benefits, which increases equity while providing a higher quality of service.

    The City of Houston, which has enacted a variety of ordinances such as no net fill in the floodplain, is an example of a locality that is making efforts to address risk and add resiliency.  Adding technology such as property specific risk pricing will also make an impact on the public's awareness of the issue as others have discussed.  These may not specifically help New Orleans, but they are indicative of the general trend of flood risk management.

    Although I currently live in Alaska, I am a past-president of the ASCE Southeast Texas Branch and chaired the Texas Section's task committee on Hurricane Harvey.  A number of my former board and task committee members (and many others in Texas) have been actively involved at the local level and with the state legislature helping to realize the recommendations of our report, A Path Forward for Texas After Hurricane Harvey.  The issues themselves can be quite complex, but progress is being made throughout the country and there are success stories for those who are looking for inspiration on ways to make a difference in their own communities and states.

    That said, I do think the structural challenges at the national level are some of the greatest impediments moving forward.  This was the topic of my recent paper, "A Strategic Approach to Flood Risk Management", published in the Journal of Critical Infrastructure Policy.  One thing that is working in our favor is the clear focus on all-hazards risk analysis in recent years. This is something the engineering community needs to be quick to embrace and adapt to, lest we be left out of the discussion.​

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    Andrew Wells A.M.ASCE
    Engineering Assistant III
    Juneau AK
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  • 6.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 09-07-2021 01:26 PM

    Reflection:

    When one considers the sociocultural beliefs and values of various groups of citizens, we obtain various responses to plans evaluating controlling matters relative to long-term flood impact on lives and economies.

    There is an amazing gap between engineering something reliable long-term versus controlling land use.

    While engineering is clearly part of the solutions, it is by no means the controlling decision factor.

    Of course, I may be wrong.

    Stay Healthy!

    cheers,

    Bill



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    William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCE
    Buffalo, N.Y.

    "It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880
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  • 7.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 09-06-2021 08:45 PM
    The recommendations were sound. Implementation before and after has been poor. Before Katrina, The Corps and scientific community made politicians at every level aware of the problems but partisan bickering and inattention caused nothing to be done. Katrina forced everyone to address New Orleans' problem. Meanwhile, other, similar problems fester until a disaster temporarily commands attention. Hurricane Sandy produced much hand-wringing and modest progress for the northeast coast. Ida has generated the hand-wringing and editorializing. What's next? Failure of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta levees in a combined earthquake and flood? Until our political process is healed, we will continue this cycle of responding to yesterday's disasters.
    Another, lesser but significant, problem is that I believe the Corps of Engineers peer review system to be seriously flawed. I participated in some of those reviews and it appeared that the Corps itself decided whether to accept or reject my comments. I was independent but the process was not, in my opinion.

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    William McAnally Ph.D., P.E., D.CE, D.NE, F.ASCE
    ENGINEER
    Columbus MS
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  • 8.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 09-07-2021 11:49 AM
    Good discussion. I would like to address one issue that has been brought up: hardening of the electric grid and provision of generators for sewage collection systems. I served as Director of Palm Beach County, Florida Water Utilities - the third largest water/wastewater utility in the state - during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons which saw hurricanes Francis, Jean and Wilma damage our  community. Apart from structural damage, our biggest challenge was week long power outages causing significant sewage overflows in neighborhoods. Since 2005 two major efforts have been implemented to mitigate this public health and safety risk. 

    First our electric provider, FPL, has and continues to invest over $1 billion throughout the state to harden the electric transmission grid by replacing wooden poles with stronger concrete ones and burying many lines. 

    Secondly our utility invested $20 million to greatly reduce sanitary sewer overflows during prolonged power outages. PBCWUD, which lies in very flat geography, has nearly 1000 sewer pump stations.  Most of these are neighborhood stations which pump to master stations which then pump to large regional pump stations. All the regional stations have built in emergency generators but the master and neighborhood stations had fewer than 50 portable generators.  Some pump stations were not even designed originally with quick electrical hook ups requiring time and labor to get the generators we did have operational.

    The cost effective plan we developed was to purchase 150 new portable generator, hire staff and buy vehicles to support them. One portable generator was assigned to each master station which was put in place at the beginning of each hurricane season. One generator was assigned to each neighborhood of 4-6 pump stations and located in the neighborhood during storm season. All pump stations were pre-wired. 

    During power outages the neighborhood generators were rotated emptying each station before moving to the others. This arrangement has stood the test of time. In fact when the plan was first publicized, a number of large homeowner associations volunteered to pay for generators as long as they were assigned to their neighborhoods!

    These sustainability and resiliency measures have greatly improved public health and safety for our citizens during the several storms in South Florida since 2005. 


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    Bevin Beaudet P.E., M.ASCE
    President/Owner
    Bevin A. Beaudet, P.E., LLC.
    Bethlehem PA
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  • 9.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 09-18-2021 10:12 AM

    It's very interesting to see some candid discussions (in particular by Dr. McAnally, D McFadden, R Jacobsen) on this topic – indeed it deserves the attention, because low-lying New Orleans comes into focus each time a storm is formed in the Gulf of Mexico. And the firsthand work experiences of Mr McFadden and Mr Jacobsen are very useful for all – especially for outsiders like many of us who have professional interest.

    Based on what are presented, some questions bother me:

    • What is the rationale behind FEMA-NFIP being the initiator of the HSDRRS project? FEMA being primarily responsible for disaster management, is interested in reductions of vulnerability, damages and risk. Therefore, they see such initiatives from this perspective. But shouldn't a barrier system be viewed like any other infrastructure? That building an infrastructure is to facilitate people and businesses to move in – to upgrade the local economy. I wonder how FEMA-NFIP interests fit to this requirement. In my Flood Barrier Systems piece I provided some glimpses of barrier systems around the world. I am not sure – but I feel strongly that planning and building of Delta Works (the Netherlands), Thames Barrier (UK) and others – were not left to the responsibility of disaster management and insurance agencies (although understandably they were involved and consulted).

    • As apparent in some cases, using a 100-year event based on the historic data of past few decades is considered inadequate in the present and future scenarios of warming climate with enhanced frequency and intensity of storms. There are lots of talk about it around the world. As an example, Dutch have and are upgrading their sea dyke to face a 10,000-year event. Why the most richest and powerful country in the world choose to trail behind?

    -----

    Dilip

    Website

    ORCID ID

    Google Scholar



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    Dr. Dilip Barua, Ph.D, P.Eng, M. ASCE
    Vancouver, BC, Canada
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  • 10.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 09-15-2021 06:42 PM

    This situation would benefit from sensible solutions, but I don't think our society is ready for sensible solutions.

    The National Flood Insurance Program owes its existence to the fact that flood risks are simply too difficult to underwrite without taxpayer financing.  At the end of the day, someone needs to fund rebuilding after the inevitable losses.  In decades and centuries past, it was presumed that area residents would pay for this, not only through insurance premiums, but also through a healthy dose of acceptance.  Being willing to accept days without electric power, enduring high water with aplomb; moreover, preparing one's household with emergency supplies and having evacuation plans at the ready.  In exchange, these people who I believe chose this option enjoyed a lower cost of living; property values are much lower in flood-prone areas.  Persons who I believe were  unwilling to put up with these inconveniences have a choice, too:  do what it takes to earn a higher income, or head to a different part of the country.  Sacrifice in other ways and move to a region with better protection.

    What is "sensible" and what makes "no sense" are both in the eye of the beholder.  In the current political climate, it seems to me quite a few people are neither willing to pay for resilience nor endure hardships.  Many have lived in lower income regions for years, decades perhaps, and thanks to past investments, behind-the-scenes public works investment, and a bit of luck they've come out OK.  Until now.  This has created a certain expectation of what is normal and what is fair.

    So, indeed at some point makes more sense to invest in more forced-drainage capacity, hardening electric utilities, and back-up power for sewerage lift stations, than in higher, stronger surge levees.  I agree completely, as do many others who value individual responsibility and prudent spending. I hope everyone agrees that improvements are needed and all people deserve to have their situation improved, and soon.

    But that is easier to say from the perspective of someone willing to put up with occasional storm surge flooding. To an angst-ridden voter in a liberal city, that sounds quite sinister.  So, the wealthy areas get high levees while the poor areas get back-up pumps and weaker systems?  That doesn't make sense from this perspective; in fact, it's patently discriminatory.  In fact, all neighborhoods should all have the same level of protection against all storm surges, the electric grid should work for all people all the time, many today would proclaim.

    Residents of some areas must evacuate while residents of other areas enjoy 1,000 year flood protection.  Both areas arguably have sensible flood protection, considering the larger context.  Who will decide who gets what?  Does the actual cost of these improvements even register with today's politicians?​  How can someone get re-elected when they're on record as advocating lower benefits for some people and higher benefits for others?


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    Dudley McFadden P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE
    Principal Civil Engineer
    Roseville CA
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  • 11.  RE: Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina?

    Posted 09-16-2021 06:07 PM
    Thanks for posting this about the property-specific risk pricing.  I hope moving forward everyone gets treated fairly, especially those who weren't treated fairly in the past. I think it is very important that everyone have a chance to understand what's driving their costs.  And if the data aren't correct, well, let's make sure there's a mechanism for understanding why and what needs to be done to correct it.  There are so many data sources available nowadays it seems transparency is achievable.

    I believe once it's explained to them, people will understand their flood risk and be able to weight that against other factors in helping decide where to live or how to build sustainably. The folks of Louisiana can benefit from ongoing federal investment (I've visited NOLA and the surrounding bayou on three occasions and believe with all my heart this is a treasure) and risk-pricing will provide concrete numbers for decision-makers and citizens to discuss.

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    Dudley McFadden P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE
    Principal Civil Engineer
    Roseville CA
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