Stronger Than Ever Before: Reflections on the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Storm Surge Barrier

Earlier this year, the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC) storm surge barrier in New Orleans, Louisiana, was awarded the 2014 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement award, the society's project of the year. This is a prominent and substantial award, and I am proud to have been part of its leadership team as a Major General in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Moving this project, the largest design-build civil works project in USACE history, from design to completion was truly a team effort and congratulations should be given to many people.

A Coordinated Risk Reduction Effort

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast within five weeks of each other, a great crack in the risk reduction system revealed itself: systems of the past were simply not coordinated enough to hold back storms of such magnitudes. The levees destroyed by Katrina and Rita were originally built as separate projects, and federal leadership immediately recognized how to make the system better.

Congress wanted a coordinated Gulf Coast risk reduction system where the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts, and so passed the $14.4 billion, fully funded Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS). This program, which stretched across five Louisiana parishes and strengthened more than 350 miles of levees, included the award-winning $1.1 billion IHNC storm surge barrier - the largest of its kind in the world.


A Barrier Built on the Marshland

Constructing the two-mile IHNC barrier, which would keep Lake Borgne storm surges out of low-lying coastal communities, meant designing on soft clay/silt material deposited by the Mississippi River over eons. In order to stabilize this world-class surge barrier against storms stronger than Katrina, thousands of steel piles secured numerous 95-ton concrete piles. These, along with precast concrete caps added to the top of the piles, provided the weight necessary to secure the barrier to the bottom of Lake Borgne. Final numbers included: 2,514 closure piles, 1,271 vertical piles, 647 steel batter piles, and two tie-in T-walls.


Building the Navigation Gates

The IHNC storm surge barrier had to include portals that supported the large import/export industry of Louisiana. Reaching an agreement on the widths of the navigation gates required exact planning and the use of the USACE's Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to help build consensus.

Barge pilots used the simulator at ERDC to steer massive barges through gates of varying sizes. These pilots had to take into account not only the barge traffic surrounding them, but also water turbulence, wind speed and direction, tides, and their own gross weight. After multiple passes through the simulated gates, proper widths were selected to support the interests of the navigation community along with the project's time and budget.

Congratulations to Everyone Involved

Many people went into making this national priority a reality. In light of the recent ASCE award, I would like to extend my congratulations and appreciation to all those people I had the opportunity to work with between 2009 and 2011. This project couldn't have been completed without the passion, support, and hard work by many along the way. One project of hundreds that now make up the Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, the IHNC reduces the risks to the citizens of great New Orleans, and provides a higher level of protection than has ever been seen before.

  • Michael Walsh
    Michael Walsh
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