Through the Eye of Katrina  •  special issue, december 2007


New Orleans's Levee System: Timeline

Before 1717 - Early attempts to control the Mississippi River consisted mainly of fortifying the river’s natural levees.

1717 to 1727- The French built the first man-made levee system near New Orleans. The levee measured only three feet in most locations and failed to contain the river during periods of heavy flooding. The levees are privately maintained by area landowners, who use slaves, state prisoners, and poverty-stricken Irish immigrants to perform the work, and death rates were high.

1859 - A levee breech near New Orleans flooded two hundred city blocks and displaced thousands of residents. In response, Congress passed the Swamp Act and sponsored surveys of the lower Mississippi River. The findings sparked a debate on how best to control the river—more levees versus Man-made outlets and spillways.

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Destruction of the Caernarvon levee. The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (cwru) Department of Geological Sciences.

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Destruction of the Caernarvon levee. The Jesse Earl Hyde Collection, Case Western Reserve University (cwru) Department of Geological Sciences.

1861 to 1865 - The levee system was damaged by military actions during the Civil War. Following the war, the State Board of Levee Commissioners alloted funding to replace the damaged sections, but by 1870 little work had been completed.

1879 - Congress created the Mississippi River Commission (mrc) to replace the State Board. The federally funded mrc was responsible for maintaining and controlling the Mississippi. Aided by the Army Corps of Engineers, the commission sought to deepen the river to make it more navigable and less likely to flood.

1885 – Under the leadership of Andrew A. Humphreys, the Army Corps of Engineers adopted a “levees-only” policy. For the next forty years, the corps extended the levee system, sealing many of river’s natural outlets along the way. By 1926 levees extended from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans.

1927 - Unusually high amounts of rainfall across the Mississippi River valley triggered the great flood of 1927. As the river swelled to record levels, New Orleans city politicians ordered the destruction of the Caernarvon levee to avoid catastrophic flooding in the city.

1955 - The Army Corps of Engineers conducted the first hurricane impact studies, shifting its focus from flood prevention to storm surge protection.

1962 - The Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District submitted the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project (lp&vhpp). Designed to protect residents living between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River levee, the project called for the construction of surge barriers along the lake. The barriers were intended to prevent hurricane-driven surges from entering Lake Pontchartrain by dispersing the water among the existing local levees.

1965 - Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Betsy, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1965. Included in this legislation was authorization for the lp&vhpp. The Army Corps of Engineers assumed sole responsibility for levee design and construction in the New Orleans area.

1977 - The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued an injunction against the continued construction of the lp&vhpp, finding that the project’s environmental impact statement did not comply with National Environmental Policy Act.

1985 - The lp&vhpp was reevaluated and modified, replacing surge barriers with taller levees. Construction proceeded under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers.

August 29, 2005 - Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

For more information on the Mississippi River levee system, see Ari Kelman's "Clarifying New Orleans's Murky Edges."