Six months after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, Scientific American published an article I wrote, called "Protecting New Orleans." It explained the options that were likely to best protect that city and the entire Mississippi Delta region against future storms. I interviewed many scientists, engineers and local, state and federal politicians, and although they were not necessarily communicating with one another, it sounded like they had similar ideas. I then asked some private engineering firms that were also studying the situation if they would give me a peek at what they would propose, which they did. Their schemes were similar, too.
The options seemed to boil down to three leading plans. I asked Len Bahr, who was the head of coastal restoration in the Louisiana governor's office, if the three blueprints made sense to him, and he said they did.
The first option was a "ring plan" that would guard New Orleans, though not the rest of the delta. That plan included higher levees along certain city boundaries and a series of new floodgates in critical places to hold back storm surges from the Gulf of Mexico and from the huge Lake Pontchartrain on the city's north side. The two other plans would protect increasingly larger parts of the surrounding region.
To show the three proposals, Scientific American obtained table-sized maps of the topography and bathymetry of the region, and our head of graphics, Jen Christiansen, morphed that information with mine into a large, illustrated map that became a centerpiece of the article. The spread included a detailed map of the ring plan for the city itself. The article appeared in our February 2006 issue.
As it turns out, New Orleans is completing construction of a ring plan that closely resembles the detailed map we published. So closely that it's hard to find differences between the two (see our map, below). I just discovered this on Friday, to my great delight.
What's most gratifying is that city planners and elected officials listened. Not to what we said in the article, per se, but to what the scientists and engineers were recommending, because those people, of course, continued to advise officials and publish reports and papers. So often, especially in public works, decisions are made on the basis of politics or budgets rather than science. So hurray for New Orleans. And hurray for its decision makers. They heeded the call we make so often in Scientific American's pages: Listen to the data. Listen to the scientists!