The Failure of the New Orleans Levee System Following Hurricane Katrina and the Pathway Forward


Ivor van Heerden is an associate professor of research at Louisiana State University, where he also serves as assistant director of the Hurricane Center and director of the Hurricane Public Health Center. He has been the lead investigator on a pilot study assessing New Orleans hurricane vulnerability for the past four years. Following Hurricane Katrina, he headed an independent scientific investigation into the failure of the levee system in southeast Louisiana, and was appointed to the state’s forensic levee investigation team, Team Louisiana. In 2006, he published a book on his experiences before and after Katrina, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why during Hurricane Katrina: The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist.


Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a fast-moving Category 3 storm. Thereafter, 85 percent of Greater New Orleans was flooded, 1,500 lives were lost, and approximately 100,000 were left homeless. New Orleans’ hurricane protection system failed catastrophically, leaving miles of levees without protection from waves. With global warming accelerating, smarter planning is needed for many coastal cities and communities. Surge defenses that make full use of natural and man-made components need to be augmented with sustainable development and retreat from low-lying coastal regions. Coastal restoration is the key to the future habitation of southeast Louisiana, together with an east–west levee/surge protection system across the mid-coast. This latter system must be complimented and protected by aggressive coastal wetland and barrier island restoration.