Tuesday, November 01, 2005

On the Levees of New Orleans, Book III

A Unique Site, A Unique Theory, and A Unique Solution

Now the story is that the Corps wanted gate instead of levee walls:

An Army Corps of Engineers proposal to build a gate across the 17th Street Canal instead of building levee walls along the canal's banks was shot down in 1990 by the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board and the Orleans and Jefferson parish levee boards because of fears the gate could cause flooding from rainwater accompanying a hurricane.

Corps officials still think the proposed structure, known as a "butterfly gate," would have made more sense...

"The butterfly gates would have worked," [Corps project manager] Naomi said. "The problem was that when the gates are closed, you can't use the pumping station. The city can't pump out water from rainfall."

...Naomi said the corps argued that when storm surge accompanying a hurricane moved up the canal without the proposed gate, the pumping station's ability to pump water out of the city would be reduced and eventually halted anyway.

"You can't pump against the high head created by storm surge, and then you can't pump the rain out anyway," Naomi said.

The very point I made in my original post.

... Harold Gorman, former executive director of the Sewerage & Water Board, confirmed that the agency recommended against the gate idea because water board officials thought the risk of rainwater flooding from hurricanes was too great...

"The corps had talked about putting butterfly gates in all the drainage canals, and our big concern was that it would shut down all the pumping stations, and that's what would have happened," Gorman said...

If it had been built, the butterfly gate would have normally been in an open position, allowing water to flow from the canal into the lake.

When a hurricane approached, the gate's individual valves would have remained open as long as the water level in the canal was higher than lake side, but would close when the water level in the lake was higher than in the canal behind the gate.

That would allow the pumping station to continue to operate, even in a hurricane, as long as the water pressure it generated was greater than the push of water from the lake, according to the corps documents.

But the local Board just didn't get it, apparently. No wonder the State of Louisiana is considering seizing control itself:

There are currently 24 levee districts in the state that operate individual boards to administer flood-control programs. Most have their own budgets with very little oversight as well as full-time staffs and policing powers in certain cases.

A group of Republican lawmakers wants to consolidate the two dozen boards and give the state full control of their operations, in the hope that the move would impress a wary Congress enough to dole out more money.

More money, but would state control really make a difference? Remember, the current hypothesis is that flood control ultimately failed due to Army Corps of Engineers-approved design flaws, not maintenance or local oversight issues.

...Rep. Warren Triche, D-Chackbay, said he wouldn’t mind seeing levee boards disbanded.

"All these levee board members, except for a small handful, aren’t worth a flip," he said. "They spend taxpayers’ money and don’t have to answer to no one. If you put one person in an authoritative position, at least they would have to be responsible to the people...Some of these levee board commissioners would sell their mothers’ gold teeth to keep their positions..."

Triche himself has a unique solution to everything:

"None of this would be happening if we would have sold New Orleans to Cuba like I’ve been saying."


The Army Corps of Engineers new creature, IPET, is active and its web site is up and running. The plans of the 17th Street and London Avenue Canals are already available, and they include lots of information on the soils beneath the floodwalls! I hope the Orleans Canal plans will be available soon for comparison.

Professionals reviewing the plans may may recall Vincent Ettari's "Evidence of Misdesign" critique from three weeks ago. (Of course, New York possesses something New Orleans severely lacks: bedrock! But that doesn't invalidate Mr. Ettari's other points.)

In a private email, Dr. Okey Nwogu, a professor of hydrodynamics and wave mechanics at the University of Michigan, hypothesizes

"that the soil was undermined due to cyclic loading associated with low-frequency wave-induced oscillations. These low frequency waves (also known as infragravity waves) were generated by a complex process of nonlinear energy tranfer from the wind-wave frequencies (5-6s) to periods of 30s to 200s due to the shallow nature of Lake Pontchartrain."

Dr. Nwogu's short but detailed paper on this, featuring a preliminary numerical simulation, is available here.

Update: 11/3 & 11/4/05

Congressional hearings

on the levee failures have begun. Solomon2 wishes someone would pay him to attend - these sessions can be much more fun than C-SPAN reveals - but I'll have to settle for the news reports collected from the AP , Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times:

The engineers who designed the floodwalls that collapsed during Hurricane Katrina did not fully consider the porousness of the Louisiana soil or make other calculations that would have pointed to the need for stronger levees with deeper pilings and wider bases, researchers say.

At least one key scenario was ignored in the design, say the researchers, who are scheduled to report their findings at a congressional hearing Wednesday: the possibility that canal water might seep into the dirt on the dry side of the levees, thereby weakening the embankment holding up the floodwalls.

"I'd call it a design omission," said Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley civil engineering professor who took part in the study for the National Science Foundation.

The research team found other problems in the city's flood-control system, including evidence of poor maintenance and confusion over jurisdiction.

Bea also questioned the margin for error engineers used in their designs, saying the standards - which call for structures to be 30 percent stronger than the force they are meant to stop - date to the first half of the 1900s, when most levees were built to protect farmland, not major cities.

"The center of New Orleans is certainly not protection of farmland, so the factor of safety was incredibly low," Bea said. "We're talking about thousands of families without homes and shutting down a commercial infrastructure that's pretty darn important to the United States."

Yes, I noticed the low safety factor as soon as I glanced at the plans for the 17th Street Canal. Margins that low are more typical of situations where the alloy compositions and rivet weights are known to three decimal places, like aerospace. Why even consider such low margins for civil engineering projects that require much greater tolerances?

...Steel-sheet pilings driven into the ground are meant to stop seepage from the wet side of the levee to the dry side and serve as an anchor for the levees' protective, concrete walls. But a number of engineers have said the pilings apparently were not driven deeply enough into the relatively loose, porous soil endemic to southern Louisiana.

The result: Water seeped deep into the ground and destabilized the soil, causing the walls to collapse.

Bea also said that the flood-control system has many jurisdictions involved, and the resulting confusion leaves "no one minding the store."

While the Corps is responsible for levee construction, local levee boards take care of most maintenance. In some cases, the state highway department or railroad companies handle maintenance of floodwalls when their rights of way cross the levee system.

A flood gate near the Industrial Canal, which helped inundate parts of east New Orleans, was missing because of damage caused by a train, Bea said. The Union Pacific railroad had removed the gate for repairs, and it dispatched employees to fill the gap with sandbags as Katrina approached.

"It didn't hold," Bea said. "There isn't a door, and they've got measly sandbags they're putting in to compensate."

A good partner to these reports is this photo gallery posted by the Times-Picayune.

One of the three investigating team leaders reports on relations with the Corps of Engineers:

Seed described what he called "variable levels of cooperation" from the Corps, depending on personal contact, geographic location and even what day of the week. He said the NSF's team of engineers and the Corps spent a week's worth of back-and-forth communication "in which the responses, in our view, were insufficient and sometimes misdirected."

"It became clear to us that they were struggling to get the right kind of people put in charge of the projects to get the concerns addressed," Seed said.

The Corps has since corrected that gap amid what Seed called tremendous logistical difficulties. "The Corps of Engineers is working very hard at all this," he said. "They're also stretched very thin."

Yesterday's post pointed out that the prevailing theory right now is that design flaws are to blame, but allegations (not proof) of shoddy construction are also aired:

...The allegations, although not proved, have prompted investigators to request a meeting next week with federal law enforcement officials to share details of the reports.

The list of alleged misdeeds includes the use of weak, poorly compacted soils in levee construction and deliberate skimping on steel pilings used to anchor floodwalls to the ground.

"What we have right now are stories of malfeasance and some field evidence that seems to correlate with those stories," said Raymond B. Seed, leader of one of three independent teams of experts investigating why the levees failed. Seed, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said it is not yet clear how big a role such acts played in the failure of the levees...

"...These levees should have been expected to perform adequately at these levels if they had been designed and constructed properly...Not just human error was involved..."

Seed's preliminary findings were buttressed by similar comments Wednesday by Peter G. Nicholson, a University of Hawaii engineering professor who heads a separate investigation by a group from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Ivor van Heerden, a Louisiana State University geologist heading a third inquiry, for the state of Louisiana, also raised doubts about the levees' design and construction.But Paul Mlakar, a senior research scientist for the Army Corps of Engineers who is heading the agency's internal probe, was reluctant to offer firm conclusions before completion of his investigation, expected in June.

Nicholson said New Orleans levee boards rarely coordinated and instead "did what they saw fit," leading to a hodgepodge of earthen, cement, sand and sheet-metal floodwalls of varying heights and designs.

He said evidence suggested repeated "transition failures," weak links in levee walls where municipalities bordered with each other — and where gaps in uniformity may have led to erosion and flooding.

At the 17th Street levee, where an early-morning breach Aug. 29 led to flooding in downtown New Orleans and on the city's west side, the floodwall's old sheet-metal underpinnings may have not reached the depths called for by the Army's overall design — perhaps because of shortcuts during construction of the foundation in the early 1990s.

Seed declined to specify the "malfeasance" alleged, saying he planned to meet with federal officials to request help verifying corruption reports. "We're talking about people who can subpoena things," Seed said.

He said his team had heard troubling reports from "engineers, contractors and, in some cases, from widows" of contractors who worked on levee projects.

...After the hearing, Seed said that corps design documents detailed four different depths for sheet piles at one stretch of the 17th Street levee, and that the team had heard allegations that the pilings did not reach the depth specified by corps engineers.

Robert G. Bea, a civil engineering professor at Berkeley and a member of Seed's investigating team, said that the sheet piles, heavy-gauge steel supports, were driven into the foundations of the 17th Street canal to a shallower depth than the design required — possibly weakening the levee's underpinnings.

The investigators have already determined that the design for the storm walls along the canal misjudged the strength of the soil in the area and that the sheet piles were too shallow. Those design missteps — which would have been the responsibility of the corps — could have been compounded by construction firms that further reduced the strength of the levee wall by installing even shorter piles, Bea said.

The London Avenue levee also breached after Katrina. There were separate reports that contractors cut corners in the amounts of dirt used in the levee foundation. One official said the earthen berm appeared to be built up with spongy, substandard "swamp muck" — perhaps dredged from the levee channel — instead of dry, compact and less porous dirt fill.

Investigators have found that the fill used at the London Avenue levee was full of "shell material" and sand, both too weak to withstand walls of rushing water when the levees were subjected to the surges during the hurricane.

Design documents for the levees called for stronger dirt fill, Bea said. A photograph taken after the storm and displayed at Wednesday's hearing showed that large quantities of weak fill, mainly sand, had washed away from the levee breach. Evidence suggests the fill material was dredged from the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a waterway that cuts through a former swamp.

Seed said the Army Corps of Engineers fell short not only in its levee design but in its oversight. He said the corps had been weakened by years of budget cuts and an exodus of top-flight engineers.

Corps spokeswoman Carol Sanders said the agency still had "some of the best engineers in the world." She added that she had been unaware of any allegations of corruption in New Orleans levee construction.

"I was surprised to hear that today," she said.

Obviously, with planned safety margins below 2.0, unplanned weak fill of shells and sand wasn't going to do the job. I've witnessed Army supervision of projects before and I can guess it wasn't "the best engineers in the world" who handled this.

However, I suppose even good engineers may hesitate to push if the contractor is in dire financial straits: "If I insist he does everything all over again but he declares bankruptcy, what are we to do with this half-finished floodwall and no contractor? Maybe it'll be all right as is, and I'll just alter this document a little so it looks all right..."

Engineers have to be strong, their bosses need to put muscle behind objectively negative assessments, and there has to be some mechanism for dealing with project setbacks or failures without killing people's careers.

(This ASCE page summarizes Nicholson's testimony and offers links to his full account and the ASCE Preliminary Data Report.)

Update 2: 11/11/05

Short Sheeted

But according to the engineering section of the Orleans board, in 1988 those pilings were pulled as part of work done by the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, and new pilings were driven. The length of those piles is not a part of the public record, and the Sewerage & Water Board did not answer requests for details on that work.

"The corps keeps saying the piles were 17 feet, but their own drawings show them to be 10," van Heerden said. "This is the first time anyone has been able to get a firm fix on what's really down there.

"And, so far, it's just 10 feet. Not nearly deep enough."

Now we're getting down to the nitty-gritty of the engineering records. It doesn't look good, but it isn't yet complete, either. I can't yet come to the conclusion Wizbang does. Not yet. Still, how could it happen? I don't think the Army is short of diagnostic equipment: sonar could have detected these problems a decade ago as well as it could last week.

The Engineering News-Record offers stories on the technical and human aspects of levee reconstruction:

Under a 52-day, $6.2-million contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Boh Bros. Construction, New Orleans, now has started driving 65-ft long ARBED AZ 26 sheet pile 40 to 50 ft into the floor of the 17th Street Canal to create a 700-ft-long dam around the canal side of the breach. The pile work should take about 21 days...

...Bertucci's crew camped out the first couple of weeks in trailers at the company yard. For the first 22 days, Gaspard didn't even get a break to see his family. "I have a good friend who just lives four blocks this way," he said, pointing west toward Jefferson Parish on the opposite side from the fatal breach. "He was lucky that he didn't get water because it could have just as easily broken on the other side."

(Note: my computer can't load the IPET website. It seems that my computer is blocking access and I can't unblock it. I encourage my readers to examine the IPET site and notify me of any significant additions there.)

Update 3: 11/14/05

Shell Game?

The "Like Putting Bricks on Jell-O" Newhouse News article referred to by Wizbang and the LA Times article on corruption during levee construction (extract posted above) both refer to poor soils used in levee construction as contributing to the failure. Instead of dry dirt the fill material consisted of "shells and sand", probably material dredged from the "Mister Go" waterway on the other side of the city.

How did that stuff end up being used to "support" the levees and floodwalls of New Orleans? Isn't enough good dirt available in Louisiana?

I wondered about this until a former NOLA resident mentioned to me that such "shell and sand" material was commonly dredged from Lake Pontchartrain and used to surface driveways and roadways in the West End/Lakeshore area. He added that in the 1980s employees at the Corps of Engineers continually complained that there wasn't enough money for them to do their jobs.


In any construction project, moving heavy equipment and material to the work site is a major expense; if equipment is already present from another job nearby, the contractor's costs can be substantially reduced. Perhaps investigators of the levee failures can examine what major roadway projects were taking place in the neighborhood while the deficient canal segments were under reconstruction. One can easily imagine a devious contractor arranging for extra truckloads of dredged sand to be delivered to the canal area instead of the road construction site -- and pocketing the difference, of course!

As road construction often occurs at night, this particular maneuver may have escaped the eyes - or instrumentation - of the cash-strapped Army Corps of Engineers. That doesn't excuse the Corps from its oversight duties, and it doesn't mean the floodwall design wasn't deficient in the first place. But it may be another piece to the puzzle of how the levees failed.


From last month, an excellent article in the University of California - Berkeley newspaper, Big hurt in the Big Easy, detailing the activities of the Berkeley investigating team led by professors Ray Seed and Bob Bea:

...Bea noted that weak soils associated with a peat layer at the base of the levee likely allowed the levee and wall at the 17th Street Canal to slide laterally by about 35 feet, "like stepping on a banana peel."

...Bea expressed doubt that these levees could withstand a Category 3 storm, let alone a Category 4 like Katrina. An expert in organizational behavior, he faulted the Corps for building up the levees to a single, inadequate standard and not confronting the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the levee flood-defense system.

"The Corps of Engineers built to a set of standards, but they were the wrong standards," he said, noting that even though 1965's Hurricane Betsy was a Category 4 hurricane, the Corps continued to strengthen levees to withstand only a Category 3 storm. Bea is also aware, however, that the Corps from its inception was mandated to focus on specific projects, not the whole picture. With declining funds and a strictly defined mission, the failure of the flood-control system was almost inevitable.

"We tied their hands, and we got what we paid for," Bea said.

The Berkeley and ASCE teams concurred that jurisdictional issues may have created weak links in the levee system. Ports, railroads, parishes, and the Corps all have different construction techniques and maintenance standards, and where levees and walls cross jurisdictions, failures are more likely. Bea pointed to a railroad floodgate at the lakeside port that had been damaged by a train and not yet repaired when the hurricane struck. The team is still investigating whether the gap was adequately sandbagged to close the resulting gap, as there is evidence that this was a point of entry for floodwaters along that levee section.

"It would be like leaving the drain open in a bathtub," another team member said. "It's a recipe for potential disaster to have 70 miles of levee, and then have so many different people in charge of different pieces."

Said Bea, emphatically: "This problem is much broader than the Corps of Engineers or any other individual group. At every interface we encountered in our investigation — whether between soil and concrete or people and organizations — there has been a breakdown...

In short, because no one looked at the whole picture, "failure was almost inevitable". Does this not imply that the U.S. needs a permanent Advisory Board on waterway issues? Louisiana isn't the only state that may be threatened by failing to see "the whole picture" of multiple water projects.

Update 4: 11/16/05

Cuba's Loss

New Orleans won't get sold after all. Instead, the Louisiana Senate plans to consolidate the various local levee authorities into one agency (Senate Bill 95) at the end of the year.

Although I think this move is correct in the abstract, it seems premature to do so before the levee failure investigation is complete - immediate reorganization may even impede it. Most annoyingly, the bill rules out the appointment of any out-of-state carpetbaggers to the commission. This two-year residence rule seems tailor-made to exclude most of the personnel on the investigating teams analyzing the levee failures.

It also appears to be a subtle message to the in-state personnel that shared responsibility for the mess in the first place: keep quiet to the investigators, and there may be a place for you at the new Southeast Levee Authority:

Any employee heretofore engaged in the performance of the functions of a former levee board may, insofar as practicable, continue as an employee of their respective levee district at the pleasure of the southeast levee authority created in this Chapter and may, insofar as practicable, retain all rights, privileges, and benefits enjoyed by each under the former board.

What is worse is that it seems commissioners will remain "subject to Senate confirmation and serve at the pleasure of the governor making the appointment." In other words, they are carefully vetted to ensure their political acceptability and can be tossed out at any time; they have no politically independent authority.

I am disgusted. Louisiana asks for billions in federal funds but makes it illegal for any out-of-state citizen to help administer it. They couldn't get it right by themselves before; why should New Orleans' citizens or the rest of the nation trust them now? Can Louisiana really re-populate New Orleans by such selfish maneuvers? Who thinks that Congress will be so forthcoming with funds if it is denied effective oversight? Is Louisiana so insular that it thinks it cannot learn from the rest of the world? Dutch experts have already pointed out flaws in the current system. (John McQuaid of Newhouse News is really staying on top of things.)

I have a better suggestion: make it mandatory to appoint at least one-third - preferably one-half - of the levee commissioners from outside Louisiana, including the Executive Director. That will make the great impression that Louisiana is trying to be responsible to the rest of America. Orleanos will then have some assurance that they won't be sacrificed to the old game of plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.


Peter Zimmerman is a Tennessee engineer who criticizes the neglect he discovered of the locks at the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal. Other independent engineers speculate that the Corps won't finish rebuilding the levees before its June deadline.


More events on the corruption front: the ex-head of the Orleans Levee Board gave up his illegal back pay, but relatives of a Louisiana lawmaker won $108 million in no-bid temporary housing contracts - though they lacked a license to do so.


P.S.: lawhawk offers his comments on SB95.

Update 5: 11/17/05

"We Need Leadership"

A must-read interview with waterway historian John Barry:

GW: If you were a consultant to the various commissions, what would your top recommendation be?

BARRY: First, I agree with the Category 5 standard. I think we need to have a comprehensive review of the flood-control system to get there. This would involve the Corps working with outside scientists so that there would be a lot of confidence in the result. I have a lot of friends in the Corps. I have a lot of respect for the Corps. Yet obviously, in this instance, the Corps failed. I'm sure people in the Corps feel almost as badly as anybody else. Obviously nobody feels as badly as someone whose home was destroyed, or whose family had lives lost. That doesn't mean they don't feel the responsibility and feel pain over it. And as I said earlier, I don't agree with the idea of not rebuilding the Ninth Ward. It's clearly a major task, but the area can be protected.

Update 6: 11/18/05

The Locals Mess Up

U.S. Senate Hearing Focuses on Repairing Levees in New Orleans

It is clear that there were multiple causes for the levee failures in New Orleans, but researchers need to gather more data to better understand what they were and how to rebuild properly after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, according to testimony today [Nov. 17] before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Tom Zimmie, professor and acting chair of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, offered his perspective on the degree to which the preliminary findings on the failure of the Gulf Coast levees are being incorporated into the restoration of hurricane protection.

“There is not one simple answer as to why the levees failed,” Zimmie said in a prepared statement. “Field observations indicated various causes: overtopping of the levees, erosion, failure in foundation soils underlying the levees, seepage through the soils under the levees causing piping failures, and this is not a complete list...”

Who messed up the soils under the levees? Not the Corps, but the local levee boards. Here are two stories that describe how it happened, first from the experience of local residents, second from the viewpoint of the bureaucracy:

Levee leaks reported to S&WB a year ago

"We called Sewerage & Water Board, and one of their guys tested the water and said it was coming from the canal," LeBlanc recalled. "They sent repair crews out. They tore up sidewalks and driveways. Things got better, but it never got dry.

"So I keep wondering why no one ever came out to ask about it. No one from the Corps of Engineers. No one from the Levee Board. Sewerage & Water Board never came back."

The corps wonders as well.

"If someone had told us there was lake water on the outside of that levee -- or any levee -- it would have been a red flag to us, and we would have been out there, without question," said Jerry Colletti, operations manager for completed works at the corps' New Orleans office.

"We have nothing on that, nothing at all. That's something we should have been told about."

But investigators on forensic engineering teams probing the failures said they aren't surprised the corps didn't know about that leak -- or about numerous other leaks and problems with the levees that residents reported to them. That ignorance reflects a minefield of twisted bureaucratic jurisdictions, poor levee maintenance, missed opportunities and suspect engineering they say likely contributed to the costliest natural disaster in American history.

Interviews with Bellaire Drive residents, officials at the corps and engineers who investigated the breaks, as well as an investigation of Sewerage & Water Board work reports, paint a picture of a disaster that was bound to happen.

"Certainly, that kind of leaking is a warning sign that should have raised alarms, that something was wrong with an important component of the hurricane protection in the city," said J. David Rogers of the University of Missouri, a noted forensic engineer with a specialty on levees and floodwalls who led an inspection of the levee failures.

"But, sad to say," he said, "I'm not surprised if it was missed." He said most of those on the forensic teams investigating the levee failures "do not know who has responsibility for what in New Orleans. That's just the opposite for the rest of the country where levees and dams and such are concerned.

"The residents were right to be concerned."

'Coming from the canal'

They became concerned around Thanksgiving of last year, when LeBlanc's yard at 6780 Bellaire began to look like a wading pool. Her house is about 100 yards south of what would become the breach that flooded much of New Orleans.

"It was at least 6 inches deep the entire length of the yard -- 80 feet from the front to the levee in the back," said LeBlanc, who was left with half a house after the levee break. "At first we thought it was a broken pipe, so we called Sewerage & Water.

"The man in a truck that said 'Environmental' tested the water, and said it wasn't (drinking water or sewage), he said it was coming from the canal behind the levee."

Red tape added to levee failure

-- The structure the Corps of Engineers chose to protect against a Category 3 storm was built atop previous work done by the Orleans Levee District and the Sewerage & Water Board, using engineering drawings and soil strength information handed down by the local agencies -- but never vetted through separate investigations by the corps.

-- The controversial sheet pilings whose length has been the subject of intense scrutiny were not owned or originally driven by the corps.

-- The corps did not build the levee that it depends on to support the floodwall.

It may not be the best way to do things, experts say, but it's the way things are done.

"Unfortunately, that's kind of the norm," said J. David Rogers of the University of Missouri-Rolla, a noted expert in forensic engineering who investigated the New Orleans failures. "The reality is that the corps often gets politicked into taking these things on. So they come in after other things have been done. Then they have to assume what (the previous agencies) giving you is accurate, and that's always scary."

No absolution

Major General Don T. Riley, director of civil works at the Corps of Engineers, said the practice was "not atypical" because the corps often partners with other agencies, many of which have done earlier work on the sites.

But Bob Bea, a University of California-Berkeley engineering professor who helped lead a National Science Foundation investigation of the levee failures, said the professional canons of the American Society of Civil Engineers make it clear: Mistakes made by previous teams at the sites do not absolve the corps of ultimate responsibility.

"The engineer that comes in and builds on top of something -- be it the ground or other facilities -- is responsible for knowing what the conditions are," Bea said. "There should be no confusion about that -- no matter what took place there before they arrived."

The corps was certainly not the first public agency to work on the 17th Street Canal.

The first sheet piles apparently were driven by the Orleans Levee District in 1947 after a hurricane that caused widespread flooding. As reported in The Times-Picayune, the plan was to raise flood protection to 9.5 feet by increasing the height of the levee and driving sheet piles in its center.

In 1966, after Hurricane Betsy caused more flooding, the original pilings were pulled, new pilings were driven between I-10 and the lake, and finished with a small concrete cap. Newspaper photos of the work indicate the pilings were about 18 feet long.

Pilings piled on

Levee District engineers said that in the 1980s, the Sewerage & Water Board deepened and widened the canal, and in doing so pulled the original pilings and drove new ones set farther back form the originals, presumably to be in the center of the repositioned levee. The S&WB did not respond to requests for records, but a Corps of Engineers spokesman said its records show the S&WB received a permit to "dredge and enlarge" the canal in June 1984, and was granted an extension on that permit in 1992, apparently because the work wasn't completed.

That work had to be finished in Aug. 1993, because corps records show that's when Pittman Construction, working under a corps contract, began building the concrete cap that was placed atop the sheet piles. That means the corps was using sheet piles driven by the S&WB supported by a levee recently reshaped by the local agency.

While the corps long maintained that the pilings were driven to 17 feet, last week an LSU forensic engineering team using sophisticated ground sonar said the pilings were driven to just shy of 10 feet.

Either length was too shallow to provide adequate support for the floodwall because of the weak soils of the levee and played a part in the collapses, investigators have concluded. But, based on original design drawings of the floodwall made by the corps, the information the corps collected from the Levee Board and the S&WB about the sheet piles and the soils was accurate.

Risks cited

The corps "drew those lengths at 10 feet, and they had the original soil borings, and the tests on the soil strengths," Bea said. "When we started our investigation, that's what the drawings we had showed. Then the corps gave us new drawings, which we assumed were the as-built set, which showed the pilings driven to 17.

"Now it looks like either they misled us, or they were misled."

Bea said the practice of accepting previous work without further scrutiny has become a common practice at the corps only in recent years. Previously, the corps did all designs, soil investigations and other engineering work in-house.

"Today, due to what we would call downsizing and out-sourcing, that capability does not exist any longer inside the corps," Bea said. "So now they have to use an outside contractor for this work.

"I think the question to ask is, 'What are the savings involved in accepting those risks for projects that are so important?' "

Judging from the Corps' post-Katrina reconstruction process, "outside contractors" are almost always local firms. Very probably, the local levee boards had a hand in selecting and supervising them. Nevertheless, Louisiana seems to be preparing to reorganize the levee board system to permit business as usual, this time with the goodies doled out by the state:

Senate OKs single levee board

"We have to protect the people and the politics have to go by the wayside," an emotional Boasso said after the 37-0 vote.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who is supporting her own levee reform bill as part of a coastal-restoration and flood-control plan, said Thursday she does not oppose the Boasso initiative. Blanco's proposal would create a statewide board with some oversight functions of local levee boards, but it does not replace the local boards.

One of the keys to success for Boasso's legislation appears to be a lobbying campaign by the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, a group of top executives from a variety of local corporations who took out full-page newspaper ads Thursday calling for levee reform.

"We're trying to create the political environment so our political leaders are in the position to do the right thing," Council Chairman Jay Lapeyre Jr. said.

Boasso's bill limped out of a Senate committee earlier in the week, exempting the Orleans and West Jefferson levee districts from its provisions.

But Sens. Francis Heitmeier, D-Algiers, and Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, got Boasso and the Senate to accept an amendment that lets the Orleans Levee Board retain a large amount of autonomy over nonflood-control issues.

The amendment also allows two members of the Orleans board to be a part of the superboard to deal with flood issues. The rest of the seven-member board in Orleans would deal with the Orleans Levee District's other functions, such as operating a police department, leasing land, and running Lakefront Airport and two marinas.

Mike McCrossen, the Orleans Levee Board's acting president, could not be reached for comment...

Sen. Julie Quinn, R-Metairie, added a provision to the bill requiring superboard officials, who would be named by the parish governing board and lawmakers from the parish's legislative delegation, to have a college degree in engineering or hydrology, or a college degree in another field and at least 10 years of flood-control experience.

"This should not be someone who puts up your campaign signs and gets a job on a levee board," Quinn said.

O.K., "superboard officials" have to have a college degree and 10 years flood-control experience. That rules out teenage campaign workers. Do public relations personnel from a local levee board qualify, as long as they have a college degree?

But - according to lawhawk - they also have to have lived in Louisiana for the past 10 years. The number of such people must be quite small and neatly eliminates all personnel who came from out-of-state to investigate and clean up levee matters after Katrina. And SB95 says they can always be given the boot by the governor, without any explanation. So much for accepting guidance from the Dutch, along with experts from the rest of the U.S.:

Getting federal funding is vital, but it will take a unified plan. "Our nation has a short attention span," warned former chief engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gen. (Ret.) Robert P. Flowers, now CEO of HNTB Federal Services Corp. "New Orleans and the Gulf States must quickly identify a long-term, broadly supported recovery plan," he said. "Competing plans will send mixed signals to Congress and likely reduce federal support."

Even with federal funds, others said most of the money for recovery will have to come from private sources. But they noted there is opportunity to rethink infrastructure design, maintenance and financing in the process.

One problem, one board: Perhaps due to ignorance, the Times-Picayune takes sides, piously denouncing those who oppose competent management by promoting the fiction that this "reorganization" changes things, and labelling all opponents to SB95 as profiteers to boot:

...Sen. Boasso's bill could well run into resistance from those who profit from the current system. But the future of greater New Orleans depends on building a secure levee system and maintaining it lovingly, efficiently, even obsessively. If the Legislature wants to show that Katrina ended business as usual in Louisiana, creating a professional regional levee board would be a good way to start.

Katrina and Rita combined sapped 11 years of job growth from Louisiana. How much incentive can businesses and insurance companies have to reinvest if Louisiana state and local governments are playing games like this? FEMA isn't paying the bills anymore, and there will certainly be pressures in Congress to suspend or cut further aid if Louisiana continues to refuse substantial changes in its waterway practices. Locals may give up some "sovereignty", but if money is desired confidence-building measures are required.

Update 7: 12/2/05

Short Sheeting Part II, & An Immodest Proposal

The Corps of Engineers released more material on the IPET website the day before Thanksgiving. As I noted at lawhawk's blog, page 6 of DACW29-3-93-B-0025 does have a notation that seems to indicate sheetpile depth "Varies 10' to 17'". That should have triggered alarms in people's heads, yet it did not. This system -- and the current reporting on it - is still not being reported cogently and correctly. I don't currently have much time to do so myself.

Over at Wizbang I commented:

Although the floodwall plan was poor, its execution was truly awful, and I feel it in my bones that the locality must share some responsibility for this fiasco because the levee boards aren't cyphers and the Army can't oversee everything. It is very difficult for Army engineers to blackball a contractor, especially if the contractor has local support and the Army engineers are too under-funded to check important stuff. (This can happen when budgets remain stable yet oversight responsibilities increase as projects accelerate.)

I suspect something of the sort happened here. There won't be any paperwork to back it up; investigators will have to look into COE staff budgets to figure this part out.


The Louisiana House has defeated SB95, and for that we can all be grateful. In Update 4 I had discussed damaging aspects of this bill, but the full implications of its text had passed me by:

The terms of all such commissioners whether heretofore or hereafter appointed, shall, after July 10, 1986, be subject to Senate confirmation and serve at the pleasure of the governor making the appointment.

That's the current system of levee boards, and the language was carried through unchanged into SB95. Supposedly this is a "minimal" change, but the implications are vast. Previous levee boards were appointed over a series of years. Now, the super-board will be appointed all at once, by a governor unlikely to win re-election, yet the proposed super-board would permit Governor Blanco to wield executive authority even if she is defeated!

How is that? Because even though SB95 was defeated, SB85 was passed, and that bill puts 75% of all discretionary tax funds* into the hands of the boards. As the hurricanes have decimated the Louisiana tax base, state revenues will crash, and the next governor will have almost no way to steer the remaining discretionary funds: they will all be controlled by Blanco's cronies, and she can dismiss them at will.

It's not hard to imagine that her successor won't be able to equip the Governor's mansion with toilet tissue without receiving permission from ex-Governor Blanco, and the resulting collapse of state government services -- to be blamed on incompetence, of course -- will lead to a drive to put Blanco back into office.

Very clever. And very undemocratic. Local press and businesses are pushing hard for this, and no wonder: the opportunity to exclude out-of-state contractors (i.e., newspaper advertisers) from multi-billion dollar reconstruction contracts would turn Lousiana firms into huge national enterprises, regardless of their competence -- which in my opinion is severely open to doubt.

Recently the Times-Picayune editor ran a pleading op-ed in the Washington Post: Do Not Forsake Us; but the week before the T-P ran another editorial sternly lecturing its home audience about how "It's time for a nation to return the favor".

I do not look upon this conduct favorably. If New Orleans and Louisiana come to D.C. with cup in hand begging for federal funds, they should also be willing to assure us that the money will be well spent. Although the Army Corps of Engineers is mostly responsible for this disaster, I cannot believe that the locals had nothing to do with it; quite simply, if the levee boards don't pay attention to the levees, than what do they do?

If Louisiana pursues this course of beggary and unaccountability, I propose that Congress pass a new law: The Louisiana Accountability Act, to investigate the use of federal reconstruction funds as contracts are awarded and funds are spent. As one wag put it, “In Louisiana, they don’t tolerate corruption; they insist on it”. Repeated failures are sufficient demonstrations of incompetence if not corruption; it is up to Louisiana to prove itself not unworthy!

* 12/05/05 Correction: "discretionary tax funds" should read "nonrecurring revenues" - that is, all the extra money from outside the state that will be directed to the Louisiana state government as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

12/23/05: Time presses, and regretfully I cannot devote my resources to the NOLA levee issues right now. I suggest my readers monitor Wizbang until that time (if any) that I start Book IV. Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to All!

1/8/06: I'll probably start Book IV in the next week or two. Stay tuned!

Note: This entry continues the discussions of On the Levees of New Orleans, Book I and Book II. Book I concluded with the recommendation to appoint a federal Advisory Committee on Levee Safety as a first step to solving New Orleans water problems. Book II concluded with the revelation that the equivalent team actually appointed is called IPET.

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