New Orleans Levee Failure - Who Is To Blame?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking a lot of heat for the Katrina floodwall/levee failure in New Orleans. Although much of the blame may be well deserved, there is more to the story than has been recently told by the Times-Picayune, levees.org and politicians. The civil works process is incredibly complicated and my guess is that most of these entities have little to no experience with the Corps' civil works process and truly do not understand how a flood control project gets built in this country.
A civil works project such as a flood control project requires congressional authority at two levels before it is implemented. First, Congress must authorize a study. Studies are done in two phases: an initial reconnaissance study to determine if there is a feasible solution and then a feasibility study to analyze alternatives and pick the project that best meets Federal and local needs. Therefore the Corps uses the study process to determine if there is a need, if there is Federal interest, and most importantly, if there is a local sponsor available. Local sponsors can be state, county, local or tribal entities. Some studies are authorized under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) which is a biennial act of Congress. Most studies are authorized as a survey resolution. Survey resolutions are authorized in geographic areas where the Corps has conducted previous studies.
If the Chief of Engineers makes a recommendation on a project based upon the study, Congress typically authorizes funding for project construction (under the Energy and Water Development Appropriation). Congress must make appropriations for specific projects. Prior to 1986 almost all flood control projects were fully Federaly funded. Since 1986, all projects have required a cost-share with a local sponsor. Congress has allocated less and less each year for civil works projects such as flood control, from about $4 billion annually in the 1960s to about $1.4 billion in 1999. Currently the maximum Federal share for construction costs on a flood control project is 65% (meaning that a local sponsor must pay 35% of the cost).
Two things have happened to the civil works program over the past 20 years that has caused the Corps to work differently (and probably less effectively): a decline in congressional funding for civil works projects and an increased reliance on funding from local sponsors. Less money for Corps' civil works projects has caused a general decline in the quality and quantity of flood control projects. Less money for the Corps means less engineering positions and less interest by engineers to work for a government agency that is doing fewer projects. An increased reliance on local sponsors (and their money) means that the Corps must compromise to make the local sponsor happy. Compromises can include contracting with an engineering consulting firm or construction firm that is in a close (often too close) relationship with the local sponsor, having to make design and construction compromises to minimize costs to the local sponsor, and finally having to get design approval from the local sponsor to finally authorize the expenditure of local funds.
Because the Corps has broad shoulders and many highly qualified, responsible professional engineers, they will likely take the blame for what has happened in New Orleans. And that is unfortunate. What needs to happen is for some hard-charging journalists to start making FOIA requests and start knocking on doors to find out the history of the decisions that were made on the design and construction of all of the flood control components in the New Orleans levee system. My guess is that many compromises have been made as politicians have pushed pork-barrel projects onto the Corps at the request of local sponsors who then got their brother/uncle/good buddy's engineering firm to do the engineering design and construction work. Many internal battles probably occurred between engineers at the Corps and local sponsors and the local sponsor's preferred contractors. Although the Corps takes final ownership of all designs and construction, numerous private contractors (who are professional engineers with liability requirements for their designs) produced those design documents and helped to convince Corps employees that they were doing the right thing. The question needs to be asked - were local sponsors and their preferred contractors just as responsible for design flaws, and if so, will these same entities be allowed to be involved in future flood control projects in New Orleans?