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Does the Corps of Engineers Read Wizbang?

Long time readers know that for several months now I've been calling the flooding of New Orleans a dam break. -- That a levee is simply a long short dam and that it was a dam break and not a hurricane that flooded New Orleans.

After almost 6 months it seems someone is listening.

Levees get less scrutiny than dams
Critics note disparity in corps' standards

As they near the end of their investigations into the deadly failures of New Orleans' hurricane protection system, some of the nation's top engineering minds have come to one unshakable conclusion: If the Army Corps of Engineers had built the region's levees to the same standards it uses for dams, the city may well have survived Katrina without catastrophic flooding.

Representatives of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the National Science Foundation said Monday that some of the problems they think played key roles in the disaster -- low engineering safety standards, lack of rigorous peer review and shoddy maintenance -- are simply not tolerated by the corps when building dams, but are commonplace in levee projects.

"If you looked at a major earthen dam being designed during the same time frame as the 17th Street Canal (floodwall) was being designed, there would have been boards of consultants and rigorous outside peer review that probably would have detected and caught many problems that are coming to light with the 17th Street project," said Larry Roth, deputy executive director of the society.

"There is a National Dam Safety Act that sets out specific requirements to make sure dams won't have these problems, that they are safe for the people who live around them. There is no similar legislation for levees.

"We're hoping one of the good things that comes out of Katrina is that the country finally recognizes the fact that levees protect as much human life and property as dams."

Of course I know the Corps isn't reading Wizbang. (And I won't make a snotty comment about that requiring literacy.) But it's nice to see that they are finally getting a clue.

That levees are not considered dams in engineering terms to the Corps is another surprise. (to me anyway) It has ramifications all around the country.

'A very huge issue'

Ray Seed, a University of California-Berkeley professor who is a leader of the science foundation investigation, said this was "a very huge issue."

"The corps actually has a very elegant set of policies set up for dam review and they do a very good job of it," Seed said. "They bring in an outside panel of experts with great knowledge and experience in specific areas of science and engineering critical to building dams.

"They are independent of the corps and they do rigorous review of everything. Dams also have outside review panels meet every few years to review the safety of the dam and the maintenance efforts.

"We would like to see the same thing in place for levees, because they protect just as many -- maybe more -- human life and property as dams."

Which brings me to my last point. New Orleans bashers have repeated the silly mantra that people were dumb to live below sea level where levees are needed to keep water out. Conveniently ignoring that millions of people live below dams and their intelligence is never questioned.

What *should* happen next is a nationwide review of any levees built by the Corps. I doubt it will happen, institutional stupidity being what it is, but it is obvious to even the most casual observer that the levees millions of people live behind are now suspect.


Comments (17)

For what it's worth, I have... (Below threshold)

For what it's worth, I have questioned the wisdom (and perhaps the intelligence) of people living below dams - as well as the wisdom of building codes and federal insurance programs that allow and encourage and subsidize residential construction in these areas.

Every place has its hazards - people might justly question my wisdom in living in an area prone to tornados - but below dam and below sea level living presents risks to specific locations that can be pretty precisely determined before the fact.

I don't think they are dumb - we all take knowing risks every day. The sad thing here is that so many people were evaluating their personal risk based on representations and beliefs that have proven tragically false.

You know Parker... Long bef... (Below threshold)
Paul:

You know Parker... Long before Katrina, living with hurricanes (vs quakes, tornados etc) has long been a topic of conversation in New Orelans.

I have a sister who took a job in California. All things being equal she would rather hurricanes becasue you at least get a few days notice. Persoanlly, I'd rather live in an area where hurricans were basically the only thing we have to worry about. (well, and the Corps)

The thought of a quake or a tornado coming at me by surprise I find genuinly disturbing. YMMV.

What I tire of quickly is people in San Francisco lecturing ME about living in a hurricane zone.

I had a guy in PA chastise me for living in a flood zone until I pointed him to link that said that PA flooded more than most any other state.

My absolute favortie though was a woman who used to live in Hawaii REPEATEDLY lectureing me about living surrounded by water. (BTW she left Hawaii for Cali and didn't see the irony in that either.)

Your last paragraphs sums it up though....

We accpeted the risk of the hurricanes. But we were misled on the strength of our levee system.

Speaking of Pennsylvania:</... (Below threshold)

Speaking of Pennsylvania:

May 31, 1889 - Jonestown, Pennsylvania: dam break, where 2,209 people died.

I hope this informs their zoning codes, even today.

Paul, you've really gotten ... (Below threshold)

Paul, you've really gotten that reaction from people in SF? I've relocated to the Bay Area (Berkeley), and I've received nothing but support and sympathy from the natives.

Anyways, amen on the the levee/dam thing.

Shannon read the comments ... (Below threshold)
Paul:

Shannon read the comments in the archives. I've had people tell me that New Orleans wasn't floding when it was... I even had a guy tell me that the Friday before the storm, his whole office was sitting around discussing the fact that the levees might BREAK in New Orleans. (not get overtopped)

Their collective psysic ability was all the more impressive when you remember that on Friday the hurricane center was predicting it would hit Florida.

You name it I've heard it.

At the risk of this turning... (Below threshold)
Matt:

At the risk of this turning into an intelligent discussion...

Could the real problem be that N.O. needed a Dam and was using levees instead?

Is the difference of standards between Levees and Dams be the fact that they are different?

Dams are generally tied into bedrock and into the wall of a canyon or valley on either side. I don't know of any that aren't. Major dams are built almost exclusively of stone/masonry/concrete and I don't know of any modern ones that have broken. Dams also have floodways and spillgates etc to lessen the water height and pressure when the water gets to high.

The dam above Jonestown (Johnstown?) PA was an earthen and timber dam that was privately owned, hadn't been maintained well and wasn't built with the thought of a significant increase of holding capacity in mind.

Levees here in the U.S. seem to be built more like canals, sitting on top of the soil, made of earth/mud with occaisional steel or concrete reinforced sections. Most are built to keep high water out and moving in the desired direction, not to hold back huge quanties or water (which is heavy). A good example could be levees that are in place along rivers in central/Northern CA, although those are occaisionally breached.

Levees don't worry me. Modern dams don't worry me. No way would I live down stream of an earthen dam.

>At the risk of this turnin... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>At the risk of this turning into an intelligent discussion...

You gonna hire someone to post for you?

>Could the real problem be that N.O. needed a Dam and was using levees instead?

Clearly you have no understanding of the geography. You want to dam up the Gulf of Mexio?

>Is the difference of standards between Levees and Dams be the fact that they are different?

No, it is becasue of human error. Did you not read the story?

>Major dams are built almost exclusively of stone/masonry/concrete and I don't know of any modern ones that have broken.

Just about 5 days after Katrina hit there was an abundance of rain in New Hampshire. Authorities evacuated (as I recall) tens of thousands of people becasue the dam there was about to burst. The rain stopped in time and the dam did not break. Since Katrina there was a dam break in California. (just about 2 months ago I think)

And finally, in case you missed any of the thousands of pixels killed over this topic... It was the concrete sections of the levee that failed. The earthen levees (that were high enough) held just fine.

So you have it exactly 180 degrees off.

Please, if you want to "risk turning this into an intelligent discussion" do your homework, because so far you haven't.

You want to dam up the G... (Below threshold)
mantis:

You want to dam up the Gulf of Mexio?

That wouldn't be too expensive, would it?

Actually, paul, that dam wa... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Actually, paul, that dam was in Massachusetts. The flooding in New Hampshire was from extremely heavy rains that overwhelmed the banks of a stream, turning into a medium-sized river. I can understand you confusing the two; they happened fairly close together both in time and location (barely a week apart), you're pretty far away, neither was of the magnitude of Katrina/NOLA, and you've had a hell of a lot on your mind of late.

The dam -- in Taunton, MA -- ended up not bursting.

J.

The irony is that the 'qual... (Below threshold)
maxx:

The irony is that the 'quality' of the leveews wouldn't have mattered if there had been floodgates at the mouths of the drainage canals, which they're now rushing to put in place.

And why no floodgates? Because the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board objected to them.

Having said that, it's still true that the levees along the drainage canals should have been much better constructed so that they would not fail except in the event of a massive over-topping.

Hmmmm.I wonder jus... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmmm.

I wonder just how much impact the corruption in New Orleans had on decisions made by the US Army Corps of Engineers. It seems, to someone very far removed, that the bureaucratic organization was deliberately set up to confuse lines of responsibility and control.

>At the risk of this turnin... (Below threshold)
Matt:

>At the risk of this turning into an intelligent discussion...

You gonna hire someone to post for you?

So, you don't want this to be an intelligent discussion?

>I wonder just how much imp... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>I wonder just how much impact the corruption in New Orleans had on decisions made by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

ZIP ZERO NADA. There has not been a shred of evidence to suggest there was any corruption int he building of the levees. Just incompetence on the part of the Corps

===============

I'm all ears Matt. So far you haven't said anything intelligent.

I'll acceed to your superio... (Below threshold)
Matt:

I'll acceed to your superior intelligence.

I agree that Hurricane Katrina did not flood N.O. Would you consider it an underlying cause though since it added a lot of extra water pressure behind the levee?

I do agree that the quality of construction and inspection of Levees and dams should be to the same high standard.

I do not agree that levees are just long short dams. Mission of the two are different, where they are emplaced is different, construction materials are generally different, construction techniques are generally different.

Constructing a dam to keep the Gulf of Mexico out might be difficult, but I bet it would be tried if we could convince a politician they could make money off of it.

I thought the major levee break let Lake Ponchatrain in, not the gulf. I would suppose that a dam would do a better job of holding a lake back than a levee.

I agree that there should be a nation wide review of levees. They should also include dams (private and public), seawalls, breakwaters and bridges. I also agree that it won't happen soon.

Finally,

"New Orleans bashers have repeated the silly mantra that people were dumb to live below sea level where levees are needed to keep water out. Conveniently ignoring that millions of people live below dams and their intelligence is never questioned"

Why does that bother you so much? You've referenced it in other posts, it didn't seem to have much to do with the posting previous to it.

>Why does that bother yo... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>Why does that bother you so much? You've referenced it in other posts, it didn't seem to have much to do with the posting previous to it.

Because numbskulls like yourself repeatedly adopt a condescending attitude and attempt to enlighten us poor dumbs souls who are too stupid to figure out what the problems are when repeatedly it is the numbskull who has no idea what they are talking about.

>I thought the major levee break let Lake Ponchatrain in, not the gulf. I would suppose that a dam would do a better job of holding a lake back than a levee.

Case in point.

You're both clueless and condescending. A particularly annoying combination.

Clueless and condescending?... (Below threshold)
Matt:

Clueless and condescending? My work here is done.

How would you describe a person that has an extremely negative reaction when someon proffers a discussion but with a slightly different viewpoint?

I've never personally questioned why you would want to live in N.O. I've read all you posts on it and where people choose to live is not something I worry about.

BTW, the damn in Taunton MA, was made out of wood, privately owned and reported not to be in the best of repair. The lake has been partially drained so they can make repairs.

Have a great day, enjoy your blog immensely.

>Clueless and condescending... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>Clueless and condescending?

Yes.

Your first words were "At the risk of this turning into an intelligent discussion..." -- I think that prety much takes care of the condescending part.

And "I thought the major levee break let Lake Ponchatrain in, not the gulf. I would suppose that a dam would do a better job of holding a lake back than a levee" pretty much covers the clueless part.

>Have a great day, enjoy your blog immensely.

I do.




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