Going Dutch in the Big Easy

by Michael Mullaney on September 7, 2010


Just back from New Orleans, civil engineering professor and world-leading geotechnics expert Tarek Abdoun spoke with the NPR/BBC radio program The World last week about the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He compared the levees of New Orleans with those of the Netherlands, and detailed how U.S. officials sought advice and learned from the Dutch when rebuilding the levee system in the Big Easy.

The approaches of both nations have advantages and disadvantages, Abdoun said in the interview. He went on to identify some of the key lessons learned for U.S. engineers:

I would say one of the main lessons is that the Dutch look at this as a continuous, or a living, project … every year or every few years they go back, assess what they have, look at new technology, enhance it, and improve their system continuously. So, what was built 50 years ago is not exactly what’s on the ground right now because they are continually retrofitting it, and improving it, and implementing … new technology.

With the system here in the U.S., as soon as the Army Corps of Engineers builds it, it belongs to counties or persons in the area. So there wasn’t any follow-up, as the system was looked at as adequate … and so the system stood for a long time until Hurricane Katrina hit. That approach is being re-examined now, and there is a good understanding now that … there is a need to continuously enhance and monitor the system. Some of the new projects I’m involved with are looking at how we can continuously assess the health of the systems in New Orleans and elsewhere in the U.S.

Listen to the entire interview (via theworld.org) here: http://media.theworld.org/audio/083020102.mp3

This is a topic Abdoun knows well, as he led the Rensselaer research team that clarified the failure mechanisms of some of the New Orleans levees during Hurricane Katrina.  He also helps direct the university’s earthquake engineering simulation center and centrifuge lab.

Reach more about Abdoun’s work on the levees in New Orleans here and here. Also, be sure to check out The Approach’s own 3° with Tarek Abdoun.

More grist for the mill:

A Prescription for Healthier, Longer-Lived Levees and Dams