08 April 2006

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?

10 Comments:

At April 09, 2006 12:10 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I think you're headed in the right direction. Some people seem to think the Corps can independently conduct studies and build projects. Not so. Congress and the President tell the Corps what to do and they control the money.

 
At April 09, 2006 6:48 AM, Blogger Mark said...

You won't have to dig too far to find the role people like John Breaux and Mary Landrei played in diverting dollars to projects like the Industrial Canal locks.

Still, I think we have to address two issues seperately: the culpability of the Corps for what was built versus the wisdom of decision made about other aspects of flood protection. And I doubt anybody asked the mayor or delegation if they wanted an I-wall or a T-wall.

The Corps should not tell us we have Category Three protection if they know that the appropriations will only get us to Category Two.

The blame for the failures associated with Katrina must fall in Washington (except in the Ninth Ward, where some may fall on the owner of the barge that may have demolished that wall).

In that case, I think the Coast Guard needs to look very hard at how it manages traffic in a storm situation as well, and require such vessels be removed from critical areas under threat of being scuttled in place by the Coast Guard.

 
At April 09, 2006 8:30 AM, Blogger JP said...

Just curious: How does this impact the assertion you posted on April 7?

 
At April 09, 2006 9:09 AM, Blogger Seymour D. Fair said...

jp:

These two posts were written by two different people first of all. I wrote the 7 April one and although I agree with IDR says in the more recent post, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ultimately is the entity responsible for the system working or not working regardless of year after year of federal cuts (as what has happened for the past several years) or local funding limitations or local design or political patronage (what contractors get the contract, etc.) interference. IDR's new post simply goes a bit further in offering a possible explanation of how things may have come to be. Never have I said (or will I say on this blog) the Corps are incompetent or incapable of successfully protecting New Orleans but as IDF states the Corps will be/is being painted as idiots while further digging would reveal many things beyond their control that led to the current situation. One example that comes to mind is the 17th Street Canal Floodgate concept the Corps wanted to build that was shot down in the mid-1980s by the local sponsors because of pressure from the Bucktown fishing community.

 
At April 09, 2006 11:55 AM, Blogger I. D. Reilly said...

My biggest fear is that no matter how much money is allocated to flood protection for New Orleans, the same mistakes will be repeated. Ask yourself why floodwalls in the first place? Earthen levees are typically less expensive to build and maintain and they are usually a better engineering solution. Floodwalls are typically built only when real estate issues constrain the construction footprint (i.e., levee footprints are too big). Powerful landowners start complaining to local representatives and agencies about losing property to a levee and a floodwall gets built instead. The floodwall fails and an entire city suffers. Remember, floodwalls and levees both subside but it is easier to increase the height of an existing levee than it is to raise the height of an existing floodwall. Whatever is built in New Orleans will subside.

As new flood control designs come forward for public review in the future it is imperative that EVERYONE get involved and voice the opinion that the good of the entire community is more important than patronage or the loss of some real estate for a few individuals!

 
At April 11, 2006 2:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congress may chose the projects but the Corps is responsible for design. The engineering firm selected for at least the 17th Street Canal levees is a national firm with a long history.

There has been a lot of speculation but the fact remains that the New Orleans 17th Street Canal and London Ave. Canal levees failed in conditions below their maximum design parameters. Put bluntly the engineers designed the levees poorly.

It may be that a Cat 5 storm would have exceeded the design parameters and caused flooding but that did not happen. It may be that the closure of MRGO or more coastal protection would have mitigated the forces which acted on the levees and reduced them to a level the levees could have handled.

The fact remains that the levees in New Orleans were supposed to have been designed to perform adequately in the conditions caused by Katrina and should not have failed. That they failed whatever the other failures is the result of errors in engineering.

 
At April 11, 2006 2:15 PM, Blogger Seymour D. Fair said...

anon:

I agree with your statements . . .

Also keep in mind there those in Lakeview that insist a "runaway" barge (involved with the floodproofing of the Old Hammond Highway Bridge) caused the floodwall failure on the 17th Street Canal. That of course doesn't explain the London Avenue Canal breaks . . .

 
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