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Lessons from Louisiana

UPDATE: Quite a few of you have been visiting this post looking for the extraordinary and deeply moving radio interview Mayor Nagin gave. It's here (via Dave Winer)

The situation in New Orleans just seems to get worse and worse.  This interview with Mayor Nagin on local station WWL gives a sense of the scale of the damage. A Small Victory has this post that reads like a page from a dystopian novel. There will be political repercussions eventually. Insomnia links to a report about cuts to the Army Corps of Engineers which, according to the article, would have affected hurricane defense.

But to be wise in hindsight is much easier than to be wise in foresight and humans just don't seem to be very good at planning for long term risks.

New Orlean's fate might give Londoners pause for thought, most of their city sits close to sea-level. Flooding was identified as the main reason London was categorized as a Top 10 "megarisk" city in a recent insurance company report (download pdf here)

A Thames flood in 1953 killed 300 people (as this old film clip shows) and our major defense the Thames Barrier left unchanged will be rendered obsolete by rising sea-levels and geological processes which are causing South East England to sink at the rate of about 30cm per century.  Barriers can of course be improved and maintained, but even the most up-to-date defense is prone to accidental damage, as happened in 1997 when a dredger the Sand Kite put one of the gates out of action

In October of 1997 a sand dredger, the Sand Kite, wrecked into one of the main gates of the Thames barrier. The ship was damaged and dumped its load of sand and aggregate, then sank onto the gate where it sat for several days atop its load [. ..]The failure of this gate could have had potentially disastrous effects on London, with flooding damage estimated at UK$21 Billion and extensive loss of life.

So a probable cost of £21billion, but the human cost of flooding could be much higher. Consider London Underground carries tens of thousands every hour and if London floods so do the underground tunnels... and quickly too. Admittedly the risks of both a flooding tide/storm and critical barrier damage occurring simultaneously are low, but they are not insignificant. And here we talk only about accidental damage.

So what are Londoners doing to protect themselves from the risk of floods? The new Thames Gateway scheme aims to build 120,000 new homes by 2016 yet 90% of the proposed sites  are in the Thames floodplain. And soon we will be building for the 2012 Olympics, but as the Economist notes, not all of the splashing around may be in the pool

The main stadium and the athletes' village will be laid out on a slug-shaped area in the Lower Lea Valley, which despite its picturesque name is a wasteland three miles east of London's financial district that today is scarred by car-breakers' yards and derelict factories......All this will have to be cleaned up (with public money) before any building starts. Oh, and the site often floods.

Yet the government is clearly aware of the risks of flood-plain development

In a 156-page document, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that if the government provided only the legal minimum over the next 20 years, flood plains could become "ghettos" of unsellable homes, where there would be "more potential for loss of life"[....]

But despite this possible scenario, the paper added that increased housing development along the Thames, outlined in the government's communities plan, would still go ahead.

It said: "It is not appropriate to prevent all new developments in the mapped areas of flood risk. Most of the 120,000 houses proposed for the Thames Gateway will be sited in existing urban areas within flood-risk areas."

To learn the lessons of New Orleans, we must take unlikely but catastrophic events very seriously indeed. The risk of flooding to London will only increase over the decades as this quote from a Thames barrier manager indicates

“The average is now about four times a year, which is roughly what was anticipated,” barrier manager Andy Batchelor told Reuters. “We expected to be raising it 30 times a year by 2030.”

If we don't want to be "wise in hindsight" we must build more than just new homes in London.

 

September 1, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink

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» New Orleans - Could It Happen Here? from Londonist
In the wake of what's been going on in New Orleans over the past few days, the blog Pocket Planet Radio brings things a little closer to home by suggesting "New Orleans' fate might give Londoners pause for thought". Flooding was identified as the main... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 1, 2005 7:29:56 PM

» New Orleans - Could It Happen Here? from Londonist
In the wake of what's been going on in New Orleans over the past few days, the blog Pocket Planet Radio brings things a little closer to home by suggesting "New Orleans' fate might give Londoners pause for thought". Flooding was identified as the main... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 1, 2005 7:31:00 PM

Comments

Hey Chris

Looks like The Times have picked up on your theory too.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-355-1762363,00.html

Posted by: Annie - London Underground Blog | Sep 3, 2005 11:06:17 PM

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