Sunday, August 27, 2006

Counting Up the Cost of the Corps' Failures

A massive story in the Aug. 26 Times-Picayune blames "centuries of missteps" for the failure of the federal levees. The long lead in from page one appears to exonerate the Corps of Engineers for the engineering mistakes clearly documented by the Berkley forensics team, but a careful reading of the the three and a half inside pages leads to a conclusion inconsistent with the lead paragraphs.

Lets take a hard look at each of the decisions broken out by the paper, scoring each mentioned group. The first is the original decision by Bienville to build site the city in its current location. I think its ridiculous to include this in the catalog of missteps. First, it it tantamount to including gravity and inertia in the allocation of fault in a car accident. Second, even as the article says that "if Bienville conducted his search [for a location] in 1950 instead of 1718, the location would clearly have been folly...But in 1718, he could not have done better." Well, the city wasn't founded in 1950. I imagine they felt they had to include this to answer the bitter enemies of New Orleans who argue the city should not be rebuilt in its current location at all. No one gets a demerit for this bullet.

In 1871, the original drainage plan proposed by W.H. Bell would have put the pumping stations at the lakefront rather than the back of town. Score one mark against the City. In the bullet 1828-1970s, the article points out that while channelization of the river (from which the city directly benefited) would have let to incremental wetlands loss on a scale of thousands of years, oil-and-gas exploration accelerated that time line for wetland loss to decades. Score one against America (meaning, the country in general). Score, N.O.-1, U.S. -1.

The next bullet reviews the "factor of safety" decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which set a standard of 1.3 based on its project to construction river levees after the great flood of 1927. This standard was considered sufficient to protect the largely agricultural lands the river levees would protect in the delta. As river levee reaches cities, and as storm levee construction is taken over by the Corps in the wake of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, this standard goes unchanged. Minus one, Corps.

The next item is the decision to build the MRGO in St. Bernard to connect the city more directly to the Gulf. It proved an economic white elephant, and it was built even though the Corps news of its dangers, warning in a 1963 report the channel would increase water inflow in a storm. City minus one, Corps minus one. At about the same time, the story points out there was no after action report, no postmortem on the flooding produced by Hurricane Betsy. Minus one, Corps of Engineers (which was responsible for the post-1965 levee hurricane protection project, as was the logical group to undertake such a study).

The section covering 1965-1979 covers the design and construction of the post-Betsy Hurricane protection system for New Orleans. It reviews the Corp's decision to use the standard project hurricane rather than the maximum project hurricane, and to ignore changes in the project hurricanes published in the 1970s. This was primarily a cost/benefit decision made by Congress and the Corps to our detriment. U.S. And Corps, each one demerit.

The next milestone is 1977, when the Corps proposes to use gates across the mouth Lake Pontchartrain to keep water out of the lake and away from the interior levees. This was fought both by environmentalists and fishing interests, and the story points out that is the key point by which some seek to blame the environmental movement for Katrina and the federal flood (including official efforts coordinated out of the White House to try to place blame here). This section points out, however, that the Corps' own analysis shows the plan would not have prevented the Federal Flood, because the original design spec was insufficiently high, like the rest of the Corps levee system. For this, minus one Corps.

As for the fishing interests and their allies in the environmental movement, to allocate blame there would be to suggest that a large portion of the vast local seafood industry be shut down to provide for this project, which would not have protected the city in 2006. Let me ask this: the nation could have saved billions (in current dollars) if they had chosen not to build the river protection system if the nation had decided not to protect the vast swathes of land in the Mississippi Delta and other flood plains, choosing instead to import more food. Does anyone thing this argument would have lasted in Congress more than five minutes? I am going to give the fisherman and environmentalists a minus one, provided the Corps is prepared to abandon the protection of rural farmland in the rest of the Mississippi drainage basis.

In the 1980s, the Corps proposed building floodgates to close the mouth of the drainage canals. The Sewerage & Water Board fought the proposal because it would significantly reduce the pumping capacity, and result in the flooding the city with rainwater instead of lakewater in low lying areas. Locals forced the Corps, through action of the Congressional delegation, to pursue the plan to raise the levees along the outfall canals, which was more expensive. As the Picayune points out, the Corps did not object to the plan to improve the canal levees except on a cost basis. This one, as a result, is a draw. No demerits.

In 1985 the chief of engineering for the New Orleans District decided not to use updated elevation data, knowing that much of the levee system would--as a result--be below Congressionally authorized protection levels. I would like to give the Corps a minus 10 for this, but in fairness, we will stick to giving another minus 1. In 1989, the Corps make bad assumptions about the permeability of the bottom of the London Avenue Canal, leading to massive leakage that undermined those floodwalls and levees after Katrina. Again, Corps minus 1. And in 1990, the Corps disregarded samples of the soils around the 17th Street Canal levees, directly contributing to the failures in Lakeview. Minus one.

Over three decades, the Corps disregards new findings in engineering science and never incorporates these into Corps design manuals, allowing fatal weaknesses in floodwalls to go unnoticed. Corps minus one. And finally a 200 foot gap is left in the floodwall along the Orleans Canal as an intentional floodway, to protect substandard structures in the old pumping stations building. The S&WB or Levee Board could have acted to protect the pumping stations and raise the floodwall, but choose not to. The Corps, as a result, did not build the wall to Congressional mandated protection heights. So we will call this one, N.O., minus one and Corps, minus one.

The Picayune story says there was no "smoking gun...That one person, agency, policy or decision...respposible." That is technically true, but a reasonable assessment finds one agency overwhelmingly responsible, based on our score:

N.O. -2
U.S. -2
Corps: - 7

I think that we should take blame where the city is at fault. In fairness, the federal government should only be required to pay 81% of the full cost of all losses in New Orleans and surrounding areas. The $110 billion is an acceptable down payment. We look forward to the timely payment of the balance.

Great blog and I just read the story on you and your family on NPR. I was just talking with a friend out there that next year (in the final stages of my doctorate so not going anywhere for a year)and do some volunteer work helping to rebuild. However, your story on NPR made me actually think about going a step further and maybe even living in New Orleans as a way to make a more significant difference. Thanks for the great example of action rather than just talk.....I hope I can follow your example.;-)
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