The Orleans Levee District--A History

From the beginning, the site Bienville had selected for New Orleans in 1718 created problems. One year after the little town was laid out, the Mississippi overflowed and a low levee had to be constructed to protect the city from flooding. Bienville had his military engineer, Pierre le Blond de la Tour, build the first series of protective levees on the Mississippi River so a city could be built. De la Tour's levee system was 5,400 feet long and two or three feet high. From that day to this, drainage has been a continual, expensive problem, which has only begun to be solved in the first years of this century.

Levees required constant attention. In 1732, the royal bureaucracy of King Louis XV sent Bienville a letter authorizing some brickwork to solve street drainage, and suggesting that Bienville set up a "tax to build and continue to maintain" the streetwork and also the "levees along the river." So, for the first time, flood protection was to be the financial responsibility of taxpayers who directly benefited.

Flooding was something that everyone could expect to experience. The river did not flood every year, and in fact, the river's course did not make major changes in the 18th century. But when a full scale Spring flood arrived, everyone in its path suffered, and the water would sometimes remain for months.

The flood in 1735 lasted six months and apparently destroyed most Louisiana levees. In 1743 an ordinance was passed threatening landowners with loss of their property if their levees were not rebuilt.

In 1810 the City of New Orleans was setting proportions for levees by city ordinance. Minimum requirements were for levees to be three feet above the waterline, one foot above high-water levels, and five or six feet in width at the base for each foot of height. By 1818 the levees were being widened and raised, probably because of the disastrous flood of 1816.

The first Orleans Levee Board meeting was held on August 11, 1890 in the Cotton Exchange Building. Felix J. Dreyfous was elected as the first president of the board. The term of office was six years. The Board authorized a levy tax of one mil on the dollar on all taxable property in Orleans Parish. The first year's projected revenue from millage was estimated to be $131,915.06. The Board's first goal was to strengthen and upgrade the Mississippi River levees at a cost of $88,936.31.

Most of the Levee Boards created were financially weak. Many levees were constructed privately to protect plantations and other properties. During this period, the Board of State Engineers was established and was charged with the responsibility of such public works as building levees, making surveys and preparing reports and specifications. The Board of State Engineers operated until 1940.

Meanwhile, levees were being built higher. Gradually, men with shovels were replaced by machines to provide the labor for construction.

In 1915, a massive hurricane hit New Orleans, again topping the levees, killing more than 200 people and filling parts of the city with water that again took weeks to drain.

New Orleans sits like a saucer, rising to heights above sea level at its edges and gradually descending to sea level or below at its midsection. From start to finish, the deepest spot in the Mississippi River is located at New Orleans. Its depth between Algiers Point and the French Quarter is 191 feet deep.

The highest natural ground lies adjacent to the Mississippi River, 14 feet above sea level at Canal Street and the river. The lowest point in the city is located at the intersection of Lake Forest Boulevard and Bullard Avenue in Eastern New Orleans. It is eight feet below sea level. Low elevations have made it necessary to encircle the city with levees averaging 9.5 to 10 feet in height. In the Carrollton section, levees reach 25 feet above sea level.

Development of the lakefront of New Orleans actually began as a flood control project. Its purpose was to replace the substandard levees and unhealthy conditions occasioned by the marshes with sufficient high land and protective structures to secure the city from another area of flood disasters. The occurrence of high tide and hurricane winds made it imperative that adequate measures be taken to protect the shoreline and city.

The idea of a lakefront development project originated in 1873 when W.H. Bell, city surveyor, formulated a plan that presented the possibilities of combining flood protection with land development. Almost 55 years later, the Legislature authorized the Orleans Levee Board to implement the idea.

An amendment to the 1921 Constitution was made by Act 292 of 1928: It empowered the Orleans Levee Board "to perform certain works of reclamation, construction, and improvement" and authorized the Board to sell, lease, or dispose of land not dedicated to public use."

The New Orleans Lakefront Project reclaimed 2,000 acres of land from the lake, extending for a distance of 5.5 miles. In 1926, the Orleans Levee Board issued $4 million in bonds which made possible the pumping of the first 36 million cubic yards of hydraulic fill, creating new land from marshes and swamps. Completed in 1930, the land fill encompassed the present area between Robert E. Lee Boulevard and the lake from the New Basin Canal to the Industrial Canal.

In 1930, a permanent lakefront levee was begun with the construction of 5-1/2 miles of seawall. A concrete, stepped seawall was adopted as the best means of providing the greatest flood protection while deterring the increasing erosion of the shoreline. The 8-foot high seawall took 2-1/2 years to complete at a cost of $2,640,000. It became the city's frontline protection on Lake Pontchartrain.

In 1931, the Orleans Levee Board began construction of Lakefront Airport on 300 acres of reclaimed lake bottom, which was protected by a vertical-type seawall.

Four subdivisions were planned and developed during the following time frames:

  1. Lake Vista (West)-1939
  2. Lake Vista (East)-1946
  3. Lakeshore (West)-1951
  4. Lakeshore (East)-1955
  5. Lake Terrace-1953
  6. Lake Oaks-1960
In 1951, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the New Orleans Mississippi River Floodwall under the Dumaine Street Wharf. Between 1973 and 1992, 15 major sections were built at a cost of $30 million. The partnership between the U.S. Government, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the State of Louisiana, through the Orleans Levee Board, provides vital flood protection that runs the entire length of the port of New Orleans.

The Mississippi River Levee

In the early 1800's, New Orleans levee construction on the Mississippi River was under the direction of City Engineer J. Tanesee. In 1812 Tanesse designed plans for a 3-step revetment - a series of wooden piles driven into the river and connected to the bank to form a base for a wharf. More elaborate revetments were built by Tanesse between 1819 and 1821.By 1824,commercial wharves were thriving in New Orleans.

The first attempts at drainage consisted of open ditches emptying principally into Bayou St. John, which flowed into Lake Pontchartrain. In 1835, a drainage company was organized, and primitive drainage machines, incorporating huge paddle wheels were installed. More of these machines were installed between 1846 and 1871, but they were so inefficient that after a heavy semitropical rain, low areas sometimes remained flooded for days afterwards.

Between 1735 and 1927, there were thirty-eight major floods in the lower section of the river. Nine times the river water flooded New Orleans, not because the city's levees failed, but because backwaters had flowed into the city from breaks elsewhere. A crevasse in Kenner in 1816, brought water as far as Chartres Street.

The Sauve crevasse in May, 1849, was the most disastrous to that time. The levees crevassed in the Carrollton area of New Orleans and the water flowed south. As the flood struck each of the five or six districts of the city, the citizenry of each district would punch holes in the levees to shift the water from them into the next area. Eventually the entire city went under and remained that way for six weeks.

The following year another great flood prompted Congress to pass the so-called "swampland acts," which granted river basin lowlands to Louisiana and other areas with the provision that the proceeds of their sale be used for building levees and drainage works to reclaim lands. Although the Congressional acts were not the answer to the flood protection problem, they were a step toward the solution.

The Louisiana Legislature in 1854 divided the state into four districts, a commissioners from each joining to form the Board of Swamp Land Commissioners. Their chief duty was the construction and maintenance of levees, and by 1859 these "levee districts" were switched to a Board of Public Works, which over the next 20 years, would go in and out of existence.

The Civil War put a stop to whatever constructive moves for levee work or flood protection were planned. And, even after the conflict, work was piecemeal. Bayou Plaquermine was dammed in 1868 and, with one more natural run-off closed, the Mississippi ran higher into the 1870's.

In 1871, there was a great crevasse at Bonnet Carre, the site of the present spillway above New Orleans. The overflow of the Mississippi River reached Lake Pontchartrain, raising the level of the lake. North winds blew the water toward the city. When a protection levee at Hagan Avenue proved inadequate, the city was flooded.

A new period of levee development began in 1879 when Congress created the Mississippi River Commission. One of its primary tasks was to coordinate the building of levees in the lower river valley with the work to be accomplished through-the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Districts. One of these districts was later established at New Orleans.

The Mississippi River Commission was not given much chance for success. Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi mused that even with all that scientific engineering knowledge "ten thousand River Commissions, with the minds of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream..." But they would try.

Louisiana quickly began moves to take advantage of the new federal agency. The legislature began to create levee boards, gave them power to set and collect taxes, appropriate levee easements and cooperate with the Mississippi River Commission.

Act 93 of the 1890 General Assembly of the State of Louisiana established the Orleans Levee District and the Board of Levee Commissioners. Governor Francis T. Nicholls signed the Act into law on July 7, 1890 and charged the Levee Board with the "construction, repair, control' and maintenance of all levees in the District, whether on river, lake, canal or elsewhere, and shall proceed as rapidly and effectually as possible to put same in such state as to amply protect the property within the district, by the best methods."

In 1927, unusually heavy rains upriver caused the Mississippi River to rise dangerously. Greenville, Mississippi was almost wiped out; Little Rock, Arkansas was under water; and breaks were sweeping the flood to New Iberia, Louisiana. New Orleans was panic-stricken, and although every measure was taken to strengthen our levees, the cry "Cut the levee below the city" was on everyone's lips. To protect the city's population, property and industry from extensive harm, lower St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes were evacuated and the levee was dynamited below New Orleans at Caernarvon. This relieved pressure on the city's levees over the protests of armed trappers and farmers who wished to protect their lands from being inundated.

After the flood of 1927, the United States Government recognized its responsibility for flood control with the 1928 Federal Flood Control Act. The Federal Flood Control Act of 1928 authorized $300 million to begin the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project.

In 1931, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Bonnet Carre spillway to protect the lower Mississippi River delta. This controlled outlet could divert 250 million cubic feet of water a second--nearly twice the flow of Niagara Falls-into Lake Pontchartrain and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. In 1937 the Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened as the crest of the Mississippi flood approached. The diversion of water succeeded, and the river level at New Orleans was lowered. This was tangible proof that the complex flood control system would work.

The Hurricane Levee system

The Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project was authorized by Congress in 1965. In late 1966, construction of floodwalls along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal began on east and west sides. This project advanced so well that when Hurricane Camille hit in 1969, New Orleans was protected from similar tides as were produced by Hurricane Betsy.

In order to accelerate construction time, the Orleans Levee Board financed and constructed portions of the floodwalls, and in 1973, the project along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal was virtually completed.

Construction on other portions of the project were continuing: the Citrus Back Levee, Michoud Slip Levee, New Orleans East Back Levee, New Orleans East South Point to Gulf Intercoastal Water Ways were constructed and substantially completed by 1977. First lifts were constructed on the Orleans portion of the Chalmette loop levee in 1970, and the major flood protection structure at Bayou Bienvenue was built in 1974 providing interim protection to New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

In 1977, the Fifth District Court ruled the Environmental Impact Statement inadequate and enjoined construction of the entire project. Subsequently, the injunction was modified to permit construction of the levee/floodwall elements of the hurricane protection plan. During the interim, sections of floodwall were constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Orleans Marina, Lakefront Airport, and Lincoln Beach.

Since adoption of the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project High Level Plan of 1985, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Orleans Levee Board have completed the bulk of the protection along the Lakefront between the Jefferson Parish line and South Point.

In a sense, levee-building in New Orleans is a story of rising human expectations. In 1718, a three-foot levee serving to protect the tiny city from both river and tidal overflow was considered adequate. In 1915, a 10-foot high levee seemed sufficient until a hurricane hit. In 1927, the near-overtopping of the river levees demonstrated the inadequacy of the then-existing embankments. In 1947, a major hurricane demonstrated the dire need for tidal protection levees. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy sent thousands of people scrambling for their attics and rooftops.

In 1969, the Orleans Levee Board constructed an earthen levee elevated to 12 feet along Lakeshore Drive from West End Boulevard to the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal. In 1981, these levees were raised to an elevation of 16 feet. By 1987, these levees were raised to an elevation of approximately 18 feet, in accordance with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' High Level Plan.

These lakefront levees could protect the city from the fury of the storm. But the crucial points of defense for New Orleans would be the three "outfall" canals at 17th Street, Orleans Avenue, and London Avenue. "Outfall" refers to the role of these canals which is to direct water from the city's pumping stations into Lake Pontchartrain. However, incoming water driven by a hurricane would raise the water levels in the canals, effectively blocking the flow of water from the canals into the lake. The pumping stations would have to cease operations or risk trapped waters topping the levees and pouring into the city.

That danger will be eliminated with a joint effort of the Orleans Levee Board, New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct new pumping stations, improve drainage, and raise levees.

In 1993, construction began to raise these levees to the Standard High Level Plan (approximately 21 feet) along both sides of the Orleans and London Avenue canals. When finished, this system will significantly reduce the danger of tidal flooding, even in a worst-case scenario where a hurricane attacks New Orleans from a Lake Pontchartrain approach.

Vested with the powers to enlarge and improve flood protection structures, the Orleans Levee Board today has under its jurisdiction an intensive flood protection system including 107 hurricane floodgates, including the Bayou Bienvenue flood control structure, 73 Mississippi River floodgates, 38 hurricane values, 62 Mississippi River valves, and approximately 129 miles of levees (as of 8/23/94). Twenty-eight miles of these levees provide protection along the east and west banks of the Mississippi River and the remaining 101 miles protect those areas of the city subject to tidal action--and these, for the most part, provide the city's hurricane protection at the present time.

Since 1992, the Orleans Levee Board is spending over $140 million on hurricane and flood protection works. In 1993, the Orleans Levee Board completed construction on the Bayou St. John Sector Gate and related levee/floodwall work at a cost of $4.3 million and began construction on 13 other Lake Pontchartrain hurricane and flood protection projects, estimated to cost over $35 million. Between 1994 - 1998, the Orleans Levee Board will spend an estimated $97.3 million on Lake Pontchartrain & Vicinity High Level Plan and related Orleans Levee District Hurricane and Flood Protection Projects. One additional Mississippi River & Tributaries Project is scheduled at an estimated cost of $1 million. Two West Bank Hurricane Protection Plan projects are scheduled for construction and will cost an estimated $7.5 million.

The implementation of these hurricane and flood protection projects embodies the Orleans Levee Board's commitment to assure the protection of the people and property of the City of New Orleans. Entrusted to protect Louisiana's highest concentration of major commercial infrastructure and one of America's most significant historical assets, the Vieux Carre, the Orleans Levee Board is determined to fight hurricanes from taking New Orleans by storm.