Building and Construction

Lessons from French Engineers as Houston's Recovery Begins

30 August 2017

A year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I toured parts of the city with a historian. He explained how French engineers some 300 years earlier had chosen a ridge line as the northern edge of what we know today as the French Quarter.

That ridge along Rampart Street was enough to keep water from the swamps just to the north out of the settlement.

When Katrina struck, the historian told me, he watched as flood waters rose to the foot of Rampart Street but stopped short of entering the French Quarter. It was then, he said, that he realized that those engineers from three centuries before had been correct when they laid out the settlement to coexist with nature.

(Click to enlarge.) Flood waters from Hurricane Katrina stopped short of entering the French Quarter, visible at the sharp bend of the Mississippi River.(Click to enlarge.) Flood waters from Hurricane Katrina stopped short of entering the French Quarter, visible at the sharp bend of the Mississippi River.Levees, barriers and pumps came years later to drain swampland and create land on which to build an expanding New Orleans. Those man-made tools proved all-too vulnerable, however, when Katrina swept across the city.

I returned to New Orleans a couple of years later and met with executives from Entergy, the local utility. The company was investing to harden its electricity generation and distribution infrastructure after Katrina. It viewed the investment less as a response to the politically charged idea of climate change than as a prudent action by a risk-averse utility.

They said weather events in recent decades showed a trend toward more intensive and damaging storms, whatever the reason. As a risk-averse utility serving the public through a monopoly franchise, Entergy officials saw their decision to harden their infrastructure as a conservative and prudent investment.

In May, Entergy New Orleans said it would spend $30 million over the next two years on storm hardening work, including enhanced pole inspection/replacement, circuit reconfiguration and other targeted measures. The video explains other infrastructure-hardening investments the utility has made since Hurricane Katrina.

The Entergy executives recognized, too, that their ability to generate and deliver electricity wouldn't be of much use if commercial and industrial end-users were closed because of damaged or flooded facilities. Hardening all of that infrastructure was seen as important too, representing an enormous, long-term effort.

Too Vulnerable?

With Hurricane Harvey flood waters receding in and around Houston, some wonder whether the region's energy infrastructure is too vulnerable to storms and flooding. It's a question with national and even global implications.

After all, the Houston-Galveston area is responsible for producing more than half of the U.S. supply of jet fuel. It's also home to nearly one-third of U.S. petroleum refining capacity and is the largest supplier of energy products to the U.S. military.

(Read "Might Harvey Hasten the Ike Dike?")

The area is home to the largest concentration of petrochemical processing plants in the United States. The Port of Houston and the Port of Beaumont are the country's second and fourth busiest ports with around 428 million tons of cargo passing through the region each year.

The Port of Houston is a vital national — and global — energy asset.The Port of Houston is a vital national — and global — energy asset.Those assets are strategically important, not only to the U.S. economy, but to the global economy too. Gulf Coast ports are vital as oil and petro-products are loaded onto ships and traded globally. Liquefied natural gas terminals are proving instrumental in the burgeoning U.S. role in helping to meet global energy demand.

Because of their strategic importance, sites like the Port of Houston — along with equally strategic ports and cities along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts — need to be the focus of prudent and risk-mitigating investments to harden their infrastructure. Because of these assets' strategic importance, a federal role seems essential to plan, fund and build barriers and structures.

What's more, rising ocean levels and the reality of more intense storms, whatever their cause, should move planners and engineers to rethink land use decision making. Zoning has been a four-letter word in Houston, and the city's growth, fueled largely by the energy sector, has paved over areas that once helped to absorb and control rainfall.

The landscape architect and planner Ian McHarg helped to spark new thinking almost 50 years ago with his landmark book "Design with Nature." His ideas and approaches remain relevant today.

So too are the approaches those French engineers took when they laid out early New Orleans, without, by the way, computer models and GPS data. Their insights into how natural systems work could offer lessons as Houston and the Gulf Coast rebuild after Harvey. The region is of national strategic importance, and investments that recognize its vital role are prudent and necessary.

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