April 12, 2006
KATRINA: The Army Corps of Engineers
I have been, I admit, most delinquent in following up on the Hurricane Katrina fallout. I'm not alone: the national media, having initially blamed President Bush for nearly everything, lost interest in the story, and national Democrats are all too happy to leave things right where they are.
But the New Orleans media and some dogged observers have not been so content. One story that they have pursued is the long-term institutional culpability of the Army Corps of Engineers, which designed, constructed and maintained the levees surrounding New Orleans, for building levees that were unable to withstand the pressure of the water that built up against them, and eventually breached, flooding the city.
To backtrack a bit: you will recall that much of the official concern about Katrina hitting New Orleans, including specific concerns raised by and to President Bush, was that the levees would be "overtopped" - i.e., that the water level would rise above the tops of the levees and surge into the city. Thus, for example, if you have a 14-foot levee and 15 feet of water, you get one foot of storm surge lapping through the streets. Instead, however - and unexpectedly, for federal, state and local officials managing the crisis - the levees were breached, meaning that the walls gave way and the whole 14 feet of water came pouring in, a disaster of many times the magnitude of overtopping of the levees.*
Two of the more diligent bloggers following this story and its reporting in the New Orleans media have been New Orleans-based Paul of Wizbang and Harry Shearer (yes, the Harry Shearer, of "Spinal Tap" and the voice of Mr. Burns, among others) at the Huffington Post (h/t Kaus). Here, Paul explains why the Army Corps of Engineers manual shows that the levees should have been constructed to hold more water than they did. Here, Paul notes that tests done by the Corps showed the weaknesses of the way the levees were being built almost two decades before Katrina. Here, he notes that the badly-designed levees that failed were constructed in the late 1990s, and argues that the Corps is still using bad, old data to build new levees. Here, Shearer flags the admission by the head of the Corps at a recent Senate hearing that it was design defects in the levees that caused the flooding of the city. And here, Shearer excoriates the media for not caring about the Corps story.
Paul keeps talking about a lawsuit and perhaps there are some federal contractors who might not be protected by Boyle immunity for some reason, but I'm not sure who could get sued; I know that this lawsuit does not sound promising:
A lawyer who has filed a class-action suit over the levee failures said Strock's statement may mean little for his case because the corps is generally immune from legal liability by virtue of a 1928 law that put the agency in the levee-building business.
"The words are heavy and important'" Joseph Bruno said. "The problem is legal impediment called immunity. It was tort reform that began in 1928."
However, lawyer Mitchell Hoffman said it could help his case, which seeks to sidestep the corps' immunity by alleging the levee failure amounted to a massive government seizure of peoples' homes and land.
"It simplifies the case significantly because we don't have to have a battle of experts," Hoffman said. "Now the judge can say because of the enormity, it was a taking and the government needs to pay these people for their property."
I can't see how you can squeeze the square peg of a charge of negligent levee design into the round hole of a claim of Fifth Amendment takings of property.
* - A predictable "BUSH LIED!!!!!!!!!!" meme has arisen from contradictions between Bush saying after the fact that nobody expected the levees to be breached and evidence that Bush was warned of the risk of the levees being overtopped. This is one reason why the media and the Democrats have been uninterested in clarifying the distinction between the two.
The height of the levees wasn't the problem, necessarily. Their depth was. They weren't built far enough into the ground. As I understand it, complete breach occurred not because of surface cracking or overtopping, (though there was some of the latter...this alone, as Crank points out, would have been manageable), but b/c the levee's foundation was compromised. It was compromised b/c the ground it was built in is soft, waterlogged, and susceptible to shifting given a sudden addition of more water- ala the effects of Katrina.
With that, the current debate, again as I understand it, centers as much around whether it is feasible- or even possible- to build effective levees in New Orleans against Katrina-type effects as it does around whether such negligently did not occur.
Also, this was not, or should not have been "unexpected" by anyone. I went to law school in New Orleans betw/ 2000-2003. Late summer into fall (hurricane season peak) would bring w/ it long stories in the Times-Picayune about what would happen when the big one hit, to include considerations of the levees' condition and vulnerability.
Without really digging into the engineers issues involved regarding the levees, the hindsight is very similar to the World Trade Center issues. Also Apollo 1 and the Challenger disaster. Asking the design professionals to come up with something that,while possible, isn's really practical without spending an absurd amount of money. As I told my clinets, when I practiced architecture, "You want it? Sure. Is it possible? This is America. For money you can do anything."
I don't care what anyone says, Yamasaki and the entire crew never conceived of jets loaded with fuel hitting the towers. That is a different kind of load than the very high wind load that it was designed to overcome.
Apollo 1 was a disaster when the successes of Mercury and Gemini got the politicians and higher ups thinking big. Challenger happened because the politicians insisted on launching when the engineers all said, "No."
I have dealt with the Corps of Engineers in the past. What many people may not realize is they are in command of the entire US coastline. Period. You may think your deed says that dock on the canal on your house makes it yours, but it doesn't. The Corps is in charge. And when I dealt with them, I met with some very intelligent, well trained hard working (they are US Army remember) earnest people. When you ask engineeers to design something, but put politicians who want to earmark their pet pork with some of the money, you have to understand the army does have a chain of command that ends with civilans with no connstruction background, but a high probability of "approporiating" the money set into their background. So the levees were never going to be totally perfect in design. They had no chance.
Having licved through 9/11 in NY, I can see why Ray Nagin (is that the mayor of NO, I forget), is the absolute number one jackass here. As were all previous mayors. Giuliani was never liked, and the city was tired of him by then, but the emergency command center was taken out, and he still managed to run things. Hospitals were staffed (although sadly, never used), and everyoen was ready. in New Orleans, those school bused sat idle. The aftermath was totally FEMA's fault, the during was the mayor and governor's. Stop blaming the Corps for having a bunch of po;liticians thell them how to engineer a series of major projects. And no one else can say otherwise unless and until they can review 50 + years of minutes of meetings, assuming they exist.
New Orleans should be rebuilt similar to a barrier island community. The houses all have garages and mud rooms on the ground floor and the kitchen and bedrooms are on the second floor.
If properly done this would be much more architectually appealing than putting a shotgun shack on cinderblocks, which seems to be the present exercise in popular futility
If you want to read about the chronic ineptitude of the Army Corps of Engineers, you need to read "Rising Tide" that tells the story of the 1927 Mississippi Flood.
The difference here is that in 1927 the government stepped in to helps its citizens and didn't blame nor leave it to the states as happeend in Katrina.
In Katrina, the federal government (Bush Administration) failed the people. Nothing sums it up better than seeing Bush on a pile of rubble September 2001 yet looking down from Air Force One after Katrina. Unconscienable.
Egos and politics are what produced the Mississippi flood in 1927 and no doubt what produced Katrina.
Overtopping was and still is more dangerous, though less likely, than a breach. Yeah, 15' of water on 14' levees for 4 hours may not fill the 'bowl' of levees guarding NO, but it could do a pretty good job of it. 17' of water, OTOH, would have put 14' of water inside New Orleans, which would then be held there by the levees. That 14' would have been about 8' more than they got. Further, it would have filled in 4 hours, rather than 2 days.
That, in turn, would have been enough to put totally under water all of those roofs we saw people being rescued from - virtually every person who was rescued would have drowned instead. Virtually everyone who was still in the Lower 9th ward would be dead. Even the ones who can swim, yeah, they can swim, can they swim 1 mile to the nearest dry land? In a rushing storm surge during a hurricane? Probably not.
Later, not a drop of it would have drained, until they intentionally blew the levees. That might, over a month, drain enough water to allow the pumps to drain the rest.
We saw a bad case scenario for NO, but believe me - I've been watching for this storm for a while(relatives in NO) - we saw nothing close to the worst case scenario.