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Corps Ignored Critical Data That Could Have Saved New Orleans

The Corps of Engineers ignored critical meteorological data that would have completely changed the nature of the hurricane protection system built in New Orleans. Those changes would have protected some areas of the city and could quite possibly have saved the whole levee system. In the process, the Corps ignored the National Weather Service, they ignored the GAO and then they've outright lied to cover their tracks.

Note: Because of the complex nature of this story, I'm going to blog it differently than I normally do. Normally I blockquote things and make my comments. Because this story might be hard to follow (I had to read it 4 times and do some more homework to fully understand it myself) I'm going to rewrite it in chronological order to make it easier on you guys then I'll give my thoughts. Then in the extended section I'm taking the unusual step of including the full text of the original in case the permalink dies. It is an eye opening read. Kudos to the TP (again) for doing what no other media organization will.

--Start chronological rewrite--

In 1965 Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans and flooded much of the 9th Ward. (upper and lower) Congress then went to the Corps and asked them to design a Hurricane Protection System that would protect against "the most severe meteorological conditions that are considered reasonably characteristic of the region." (Note: They did not authorize building anything yet)

The Corps of Engineers needed a "project storm" for which they wanted to build protection. They went to the National Weather Service and asked them what the most severe storms that could be expected were. The NWS (then named the Weather Bureau) gave the Corps data from a study done in 1959. In 1959 we obviously had limited understanding of hurricanes.

Using the 1959 data, the NWS produced a hypothetical "project storm" with a maximum wind of 100 mph. They determined such a storm had a 1 in 200 chance of occurring in any year. The Corps (with some revisions) adopted this model. We now know hurricanes get much bigger than that.

So the Corps then goes back to Congress and says, "OK this is what we want to build, do you authorize it?" and Congress then appropriated the money.

Court battles with environmental groups delayed the construction until 1982. The designs for the floodwalls that failed, flooding New Orleans, were not done until the late 1980s early 1990s and the construction was done in the late 90s. (That will be important later)

In the meantime, the NWS does more studies and realizes that their data missed 50(!) tropical storms between 1900 and 1957. (Plus they added storms from the 60s) In June of 1972 they issue another preliminary report updating the "project storm" to have a maximum wind speed of 114 mph and bumped the odds to 1 in 100 years. (What we now call a Cat 3)

The final report was done in 1979 and by then the project storm had winds of 140 mph. (What we now call a Cat 4)

Bizarrely, the Corps never used these updated models, even when they had them. They continued to use the data from 1959 that predicted only 100mph winds.

Incredibly, instead of the Corps using the updated models to increase the level of protection, in some cases they even reduced it. And the Corps not only ignored the data, they even ignored when the GAO called them out for not using it. (I'll blockquote this part, it's the smoking gun.)

In a 1982 report to the secretary of the Army titled "Improved Planning Needed By The Corps of Engineers to Resolve Environmental, Technical And Financial Issues On The Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection Project," the General Accounting Office -- now the Government Accountability Office -- says: "Subsequent to project authorization and based on the Weather Bureau's new data pertaining to hurricane severity, the Corps determined that the levees along the three drainage canals which drain major portions of New Orleans and empty into Lake Pontchartrain are not high enough since they are subject to overflow by hurricane surges."

Other GAO reports indicate the corps actually was lowering its levee heights even as the new science was raising the heights of expected storm surges.

In a 1976 report on the project, the GAO said the corps expected levees to range between 16 feet and 18.5 feet. But by the time the 1982 report was issued, those averages had been dropped to between 13.5 feet and 16.5 feet -- even though by then, based on weather service reports, the possible storm surge for the standard project hurricane had been increased to more than 18 feet.

--End chronological rewrite and start my comments--

So after the new data was known and after the GAO even said the Corps had it and knew the design was flawed, they still used the flawed design to build the floodwalls.

And here is where "The Great Lie" comes in. Since the storm the Corps has REPEATEDLY said "Don't blame us, Congress only authorized us to built levees for a 'Fast Moving Category 3'." We now know that's a big fat hairy lie.

Congress never told the Corps to protect New Orleans from a "Fast Moving Category 3." For starters, when Congress authorized the project, there was no Saffir-Simpson scale!

Congress told the Corps to protect New Orleans from "the most severe meteorological conditions that are considered reasonably characteristic of the region." As of 1979 we knew that storm had winds of 140mph making it what we now call a Category 4.

Congress did their job. It was the Corps, not Congress, who decided what was to be built. In effect Congress authorized Cat 5 protection if that is what the NWS and the Corps determined was needed. (Though some may argue that Congress might have balked the cost, the reality is we'll never know.) Every phase of the project needed to be approved by Congress as it was to be done. Considering the final designs for the faulty floodwalls were done over a decade after the 1979 NWS report, the Corps clearly should have sought approval for what we would now call Cat 5 protection. That didn't happen. They got approval for "1959" floodwalls.

Imagine if Ford or GM used known flawed crash test data from 1959 to build cars in the late 1990s.

The gross negligence is astounding. They knew the walls were not designed for the weather that was expected. They even knew the design itself was faulty, regardless of the weather.

A reporter asked me the criminal ramifications of this level of malfeasance. I told him I didn't know, that I was not a lawyer. But if Martha Stewart served time for what she did, this people should be swinging from the gallows.


Note: Here is the original story. I hope it is easier to follow after my paraphrasing above. I went to bold the important parts but I found myself bolding every line. It's a meaty story. So I only bolded the super important stuff:


Corps ignored crucial levee data
Reports showed need for higher defenses
By Bob Marshall and Mark Schleifstein

Weather data showing the need to raise the height of levees to defend New Orleans against stronger hurricanes was not incorporated in Army Corps of Engineers designs, even though the agency was informed of the new calculations as early as 1972, government records show.

The heights of floodwalls and levees now [today - 2006! ED] being rebuilt by the corps are based on research for a likely worst-case storm done in 1959. When new weather service research in the 1970s increased the size and intensity of that storm and its projected surges, the corps stuck to its original design specifications when work began in the 1980s, including for structures that failed during Hurricane Katrina.

Corps headquarters officials in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. New Orleans District engineers now involved in reassessing the area's hurricane protection system said the lack of changes in the past probably can be traced the corps' legal restriction to building only what Congress authorizes. [There's that lie again -ed]

"I can only guess, but what I think you'll find is that since the authorization (in the legislation) never changed, then the people involved felt they couldn't change" design specifications, said Janis Hote, a corps engineer who, like most of the local staff, was not involved in those earlier projects.

Had the changes been incorporated in corps planning starting in 1972, they almost certainly would have resulted in higher or stronger structures in some areas, hurricane researchers said. Though the project was authorized in 1965, financing problems and court battles delayed much of the construction until 1982, and the designs for many structures that failed during Katrina were not completed until the late 1980s and early '90s.

It is unclear how much levees and floodwalls would have been raised had the changes been acted upon, researchers said, because interpretations of the changes depend largely on the type of computer models being used to predict storm surge height. However, they agreed the new data would have certainly included predictions of higher water, which would have required higher levees and walls.

"If you increase the intensity of a storm, and you run it on the same track through the same area at the same speed, you'll increase the (storm) surge," said Will Shaffer, a storm modeler who designs the storm surge model used by the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center for forecasting and emergency planning.

LSU revisits reports

Staffers at the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, who reviewed the 1972 and 1979 reports produced by the weather service for use by the corps in designing levees along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, estimated the stronger storm outlined in the reports would have raised the so-called "standard project hurricane" to the equivalent of a Category 4, rather than the fast-moving Category 3 generally associated with the 1959 parameters. The standard project hurricane was designed to be "the most severe combination of meteorological conditions that are considered characteristic" of the area.

Hassan Mashriqui, a storm surge modeler at LSU, said the increased intensity outlined in the 1979 report would have raised the predicted storm surge along the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet from 22 feet to 30 feet. During Katrina much of St. Bernard Parish suffered catastrophic flooding when long sections of the 17.5-foot-high MR-GO levee were topped and collapsed by storm surges that the corps has measured at 18.5 feet. [We missed it by 1 freaking foot. -ed]

The Industrial Canal, meanwhile, was topped and collapsed by a peak storm surge that the corps measured at 15.9 feet. That breach destroyed much of the Lower 9th Ward and contributed to flooding in parts of St. Bernard Parish.

It is unclear whether higher floodwalls would have prevented the breaches at the 17th Street and London Avenue canals that put much of the rest of New Orleans underwater. Forensic engineers working with the National Science Foundation have said weak soil layers beneath the floodwalls failed when the canals began filling with water, causing the breaches.

Ivor van Heerden, assistant director of the LSU Hurricane Center and a frequent critic of the corps, said the authorization issue should not have prevented the corps from changing design specifications based on updated information.

"The legislation never mentions a standard project hurricane. That was something the engineers came up with to define the most severe threat," he said. "There is no reason they could not have changed."

In 1965, Congress authorized the corps to develop a system to protect the New Orleans area from "the most severe meteorological conditions that are considered reasonably characteristic of the region," giving birth to the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection project.

Limited range of storms

To determine what those conditions were, the corps relied on a study of worst-case hurricanes developed by the Weather Bureau -- today the National Weather Service -- for the East Coast and the Gulf Coast. The Weather Bureau looked only at storms that occurred between 1900 and 1957 for the New Orleans area.

That search produced the hypothetical standard project hurricane for New Orleans, which was adopted by the corps, with some revisions, as the basis of its levee and floodwall designs. It had a central pressure of at least 27.6 inches of mercury, maximum sustained winds of 100 mph in a radius of at least 30 miles, and a forward speed of between 4 and 28 mph. And it had a 1 in 200 chance of occurring in any year.

The corps then determined that such a hurricane could create a maximum storm surge of 11.2 feet at locations in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, based on the shape of the lake bottom and ability of water to enter the lake from Lake Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico. Surge heights for other sections, using the same storm data, were 12.5 feet for Mandeville, 11.9 feet for Chalmette, 12.5 feet for the Citrus and eastern New Orleans back levees, and 13 feet in the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes.

The target date to complete the Lake Pontchartrain levee project was 1978.

As meteorological science improved, the Weather Bureau felt compelled to revisit its definition of the standard project hurricane. Improved data collection led to the discovery of 50 more tropical storms than had been counted in the 1959 report.

In June 1972 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a preliminary report making its first update of the standard project hurricane, dropping the pressure to 27.3 inches, which increased the storm's strength, and increasing the wind speed to 114 mph and the frequency of return from 1 in 200 years to 1 in 100 years.

In September 1979 the National Weather Service issued a final report establishing new criteria for the standard project hurricane. By then hurricane specialists had expanded the list of variables considered critical to measuring storm impacts, including the radius of the maximum sustained winds and the forward speed of the storm. It also changed the way maximum sustained winds were measured.

Those changes resulted in a new standard project hurricane with sustained winds as high as 140 mph, according to van Heerden.

Outdated standard used

Had those new parameters been plugged into the Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring storm intensity that made its debut in 1969, the 1972 changes would have equaled a Category 4 storm with surges between 13 and 18 feet, van Heerden said. The 1978 changes would have pushed the standard project hurricane to a Category 5 level, with surges above 18 feet, he said.

"The corps has consistently been saying the standard project hurricane (in its design documents) related roughly to a fast-moving Category 3 storm, but we can see that is plainly not the case," van Heerden said. "The Saffir-Simpson scale was in wide use by 1979, but there's no indication (in the design documents for the projects) that the corps took this into consideration."

As evolving storm science raised the severity of the threat, the corps continued to use the now-outdated standard project hurricane parameters set in 1959, even as its timeline for construction had been delayed into the late '90s.

For example, the corps' 1984 design memorandum for improving New Orleans' lakefront levees says the engineering criteria are based on the frequency of return of 1 in 300 years, pressure at 27.6 inches, wind speed at 100 mph and a surge of 11.5 feet.

The same references to the standard project hurricane established by the 1965 legislation are repeated for floodwall projects on the London Avenue Canal project in 1989 and the 17th Street Canal in 1990.

The first changes found in the parameters for the standard project hurricane in local corps hurricane projects come with a 2000 plan for the West Bank. The agency's planning includes the 1979 standard project hurricane parameters, as well as science on the impact of sea level rise to levee heights.

Although the corps' design documents between 1972 and 2000 don't reflect awareness of the changes, other government reports related to those projects did.

In a 1982 report to the secretary of the Army titled "Improved Planning Needed By The Corps of Engineers to Resolve Environmental, Technical And Financial Issues On The Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection Project," the General Accounting Office -- now the Government Accountability Office -- says: "Subsequent to project authorization and based on the Weather Bureau's new data pertaining to hurricane severity, the Corps determined that the levees along the three drainage canals which drain major portions of New Orleans and empty into Lake Pontchartrain are not high enough since they are subject to overflow by hurricane surges."

Other GAO reports indicate the corps actually was lowering its levee heights even as the new science was raising the heights of expected storm surges.

In a 1976 report on the project, the GAO said the corps expected levees to range between 16 feet and 18.5 feet. But by the time the 1982 report was issued, those averages had been dropped to between 13.5 feet and 16.5 feet -- even though by then, based on weather service reports, the possible storm surge for the standard project hurricane had been increased to more than 18 feet.

Neither the National Weather Service nor corps officials could shed light on why the changed parameters were not reflected in the corps project specifications. A weather service spokesman said current staffers either were not at the agency then or were uninvolved in writing the reports.


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Comments (37)

Please... Save my having to... (Below threshold)
Paul:

Please... Save my having to go postal on anyone. Please read AND UNDERSTAND the whole thing before you comment.

I encourage comments, questions etc. Stupidity does however wear thin. I spent over 4 hours understanding this and paraphrasing it. If you don't bother take a few minutes to try to understand it, I'm very likely to just delete your comment.

This is not some abstract debate. 1,200 people died and over 300 Billion Dollars in damage was caused by this.

It seems every time I post something about the Corps some clueless moron comes along and wants to be a troll. Save your time. I'll either embarrass you or delete you. Or both.

Having said that, intelligent comments (or even valid attempts ;-) are more than welcome.

ts... Hit me with your best shot. ;-)

I, for one, am generally su... (Below threshold)
meep:

I, for one, am generally surprised when those who work for the govt do their jobs as if they were accountable. How many people do you think will get fired over this? What are the consequences for you if you do a half-assed job in the Corps and people die as a result?

Perhaps they could make it a condition of the job that those who design the levees have to live right next to one of them. That would fix things up nicely.

This should be required rea... (Below threshold)
Gmac:

This should be required reading for anyone who wants to learn the real story of the flooding problem in NOLA.

Laura,You're an id... (Below threshold)
Paul:

Laura,

You're an idiot and a moron. Deal with it and move on.

WHATEVERRRR everyone knows... (Below threshold)
Drew:

WHATEVERRRR everyone knows its Bush's Fault.
in the 90's he was in Texas, Texas is next to New Orleans get it He was Involved!!!!!!

Congress still has to shoul... (Below threshold)

Congress still has to shoulder blame on this fiasco since they are not only responsible for the appropriations, but the oversight of the ACoE. If they approved the contracts/appropriations for the construction of the design based on the '50s model, and knew, or should have reasonably known, of the updated models that forecast a far more severe situation, Congress could have 1) chosen to do nothing; 2) acted on the data and required strengthening the levees to fully meet the need; 3) acted on the data and required some intermediate level of protection.

However, in all instances, Congress failed in oversight to make sure that whatever was constructed met whatever standard was in use at the time. It would appear that the levees failed to meet even the '50s standard of protection.

The Corps failed in the worst ways imaginable, but Congress did no one any favors by punting on its own duties to the citizens of Louisiana and the nation.

So, where do we go from here? As you wrote in an earlier posting, the country might be better served with a national standard for dams and levees that meets current engineering standards and scientific understanding of threats. And revamping the ACoE to address those issues.

>Congress still has to shou... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>Congress still has to shoulder blame on this fiasco since they are not only responsible for the appropriations, but the oversight of the ACoE.

Nope. That's why we ahve a Corps of Engineers. Congressional oversight should be about dollars and time limits and such. Engineering methodology should be left to engineers. IMO

>It would appear that the levees failed to meet even the '50s standard of protection.

EXCELLENT point.

>So, where do we go from here?

Oh geeze THIS post took me 4+ hours and you want to ask THAT question???? lol

Wow, I'm so incredibly tire... (Below threshold)

Wow, I'm so incredibly tired of hearing about this. Can we please move on?

Just to clear up some minor... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

Just to clear up some minor points.

In June of 1972 they issue another preliminary report updating the "project storm" to have a maximum wind speed of 114 mph and bumped the odds to 1 in 100 years. (What we now call a Cat 4)

114 MPH is category 3, which is what the levees were supposedly designed for.

The final report was done in 1979 and by then the project storm had winds of 140 mph. (What we now call a Cat 5)

140 MPH is category 4. Here's the Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Scale from the Louisiana Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness web site.

>Wow, I'm so incredibly tir... (Below threshold)
J-Ho (Jim):

>Wow, I'm so incredibly tired of hearing about this. Can we please move on?
Baseball Babe, I sincerely hope you are kidding. If not, I dare you to say this to my friends whose homes were destroyed, or to my friends who have three entire families living in a 3 bedroom home in Metairie. I dare you to drive around and see the devastation. If you do, it will never leave you and you'll discover an unexplainable need to fight for the people whose lives have been destroyed. Geeeeez.

Paul - I'm on my way. I've accepted a job and we should be pulling in to Metaire on the 3rd! - Jim

Hmmm.What I don't ... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

What I don't understand, and I may have missed it in the post, is exactly *why* the Corps of Engineers did this.

It's not the money for this was coming out of their pockets was it? Was there corruption involved with money being skimmed off? Something?

None of this sounds at all rational absent a criminal purpose.

Back when I worked for the ... (Below threshold)
Phillep:

Back when I worked for the fedgov, I learned I could get fired for doing the job in a responsible fashion. It meant my boss might have to work harder.

Big organizations (shrug).

Thanks Mac,Even af... (Below threshold)
Paul:

Thanks Mac,

Even after hours of work I still made a goof, I'll edit the origina post.

thanks

Mac,It *sorta* mak... (Below threshold)
Paul:

Mac,

It *sorta* makes since. van Heerden was saying that the flood surge would be 18+ feet which would make it a 5. We usually only talk about wind but the scale actually uses multiple critera. So when van Heerden says 140 winds and tides over 18 feet is a cat 5 he is right.

I did not write it that way and I just went ahead and edited the post vs making major changes to the post. But there was logic in what he was saying. I should have checked his quote better.

ed that is the maddening pa... (Below threshold)
Paul:

ed that is the maddening part. Apparently they were either lazy or simply incompetent.

No one has aledged the Corps was currupt in any way... just stupid.

Frankly if they made a few bucks, it might make me at least understand how this happened.

Wow, I'm so incredibly tire... (Below threshold)
Paul:

Wow, I'm so incredibly tired of hearing about this. Can we please move on?

Posted by: baseball babe at March 23, 2006 02:34 PM
=========

Yeah, the hell with 1200 poeple dead and a half a million people homeless. Let's talk about something important... Like Baseball.

You freaking moron.

Hmmm.ed t... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

ed that is the maddening part. Apparently they were either lazy or simply incompetent.

What really concerns me is not just the fecklessness shown in your post but also this:

Where else did the Corps of Engineers do this nonsense also?

Frankly I think a top to bottom review of all Corps of Engineers projects is desperately needed now before there's another catastrophe aided by incompetence and malfeasance.

This is mind boggling... (Below threshold)
Matt:

This is mind boggling

I've been involved with Govt projects and contracting for several years and have never seen a long-term project that wasn't updated as it went along. As requirements and/or technology changed the projects and contracts for them were changed and updated. That is a normal fact of life with Govt projects. The Corps of Engineers had many opportunities to update the date and didn't. Their Lawyers fighting the environmental groups would of been aware of the latest data, so the Corps of Engineers can't hide from that.

Unfortunately I doubt we will ever see the Corps of Engineers sanctioned for this by congress. I honestly don't think congress has the courage.

Who has a plan to hold the Corps accountable?

Who in LA has the leverage to make sure that the rebuild of the levee system is done to a modern standard and done correctly?

>Who in LA has the leverage... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>Who in LA has the leverage to make sure that the rebuild of the levee system is done to a modern standard and done correctly?

No one. That is a federal issue really. As we type, the Corps is steady building levees up to 1959 standards. -- IF they can even figure out how to make build them that well.

The answer to how this coul... (Below threshold)
scrub_oak:

The answer to how this could happen is that the Federal Government does not have your best interests in mind. I can promise you that if the job where financed directly from the inhabitants of New Orleans, those levees would have held. It sure makes a difference when it is your home that is being protected as compared to some houses in a distant city. Keep this in mind the next time a politican is in favor of any particular social program (like universal healthcare.)

Paul, or should I say Capta... (Below threshold)
ts:

Paul, or should I say Captain Ahab -

Reading your post, I am guessing that most of your analysis is based upon reporting from the Times-Picayune and other mass media outlets as opposed to a first hand reading of source documents. The 1982 GAO report you referenced included this -

"Orleans Levee District officials believed that the Corps' standards may be too high for what is really needed for adequate protection and for what is affordable by local sponsors. For example, they said that Corps standards required widening the base of the levee by 200 feet to raise the levee height by 1.5 feet. They recommended the Corps lower its design standards to provide more realistic hurricane protection to withstand a hurricane whose intensity might occur once every 100 years rather than building a project to withstand a once in 200- to 200-year occurence. This, they believe would make the project more affordable, provide adequate protection, and speed project completion."

Or how about this from the Congressional Research Service Report to Congress this past December -

"The Corps' decision in the mid-1980s to recommend higher levees instead of the inlet barriers it had recommended in 1965 was shaped by multiple factors, including environmental litigation, project economics, and local preferences. The Corps preferred floodgates to floodwalls along the Orleans Avenue and London Avenue canals. The decision not to build floodgates, and instead build floodwalls along the canals, was made by the local project sponsors." [The Corps preferred design also would have had a barrier along the lake at Seabrook which would have blocked surge in the Industrial Canal.}

I have never denied the Corps' culpability in this, but your refusal to recognize that there were many actors who share responsibility for what happened makes you more zealot than analyst. You have become so convinced of the infallibility of your position that you dismiss any and all information that does not solely implicate the Corps as irrelevant.

You need to stop beating up on the most convenient punching bag and start actually looking at everything that went wrong or it will get screwed up this time as well.


tsWith all due res... (Below threshold)
Paul:

ts

With all due respect... wrong.

I don't care if the tooth fairy asked the Corps to make the floodwalls with pixie dust. The job of the Corps of Engineers is to build a safe product.

Every engineering task has multiple and often conflicting demands....

I'm sure Ford motor company would like to squeeze an extra 3 mpg out of every vehicle, but taking out the seatbelts and the airbags to achive it is not an acceptable engineering decision. (see also the ASCE code of ethics)

>I have never denied the Corps' culpability in this, but your refusal to recognize that there were many actors who share responsibility...

Sorry. That dogs doesn't hunt. Your defence is "The devil made them do it."

Sorry, the Corps is responsible for the safety of the product and they were grossly negligent in that task. I don't care who asked them to do what, their primary and overriding responsibility is to protect human lives and property.

The shrimpers at Bucktown opposed the floodgate.. So what? The Corps gets to commit criminal negligence and then say, "Well the Shrimpers are to blame."

They why have engineers?

I don't know your background but I know you are smart enouhg to know better. The corps ignored this data, they ignroed when their own tests said the design would fail prematurely, they just freaking made up soil strengths. They didn't do soil borings in the right places, they put the piles too low even though thier own handbook said to make them longer. ANd I'm sure I'm forgetting a few off the top of my head.

- Oh they got sued 2 times by contractors who couldn't even build the floodwalls per spec becasue the walls could not support even their own weight! (Much less water)

It's not zealotry to damn the corps... They did it themselves. Repeatedly.

BTW- For those who say I do... (Below threshold)
Paul:

BTW- For those who say I don't let people disagree with me or I delete them, you should follow ts and mantis's lead.

I like people who can debate without being an idiot. They are just so rare...

Oh and mantis, I told my wife the other night I was starting to like you and she threatened me with divorce. ;-)

What is chilling is the fac... (Below threshold)
JD:

What is chilling is the fact that now the engineering specs for every USACoE "flood control" project can be legitimately called into question.

What is now required is a USACoE variant of the earthquake retrofitting project for highway bridges that was carried out in California following the Northridge earthquake.

It is now incumbent upon Congress and the Department of the Army to ensure that each and every USACoE flood control project now extant have its engineering calculations and construction specs to be gone over with a fine tooth comb and to be retrofitted and/or rebuilt to the PROMISED and PAID-FOR specs. To do anything else is tantamount to the Congress and ACoE praying that shit doesn't happen on their watch.

JD -You have confl... (Below threshold)
ts:

JD -

You have conflated two terms - "Promised" and "Paid for" that are not at all the same in the government, but not because of any nefarious reasons. Let me provide an example that will clarify my point. In the early 1980s a strong nor'easter destroyed Great Point Light on Nantucket Island. The Coast Guard installed a timber structure to provide the necessary aid to the mariner. Later that year, in a continuing resolution (one of those bills that gets passed to keep the government running when there is no budget passed), Senator Kennedy inserted language that directed the Coast Guard to spend up to $2 million to reconstruct Great Point Light in its previous image.

Unlike what some websites indicate, there was no additional funding to meet that requirement. So the Coast Guard had to carve the construction costs out of other projects and priorities because there was a law directing that the light be built.

Clearly the individual(s) whose projects were cut had to extend deadlines or eliminate aspects of projects that they were resonsible for. Does that make them unethical or unprofessional? I would argue it does not. But it demonstrates that in the government, things are promised that are not paid for. The cost is borne somewhere, though.

For Paul -

I would argue that it is the Corps responsibility to build the best possible sytem within the constraints that they have. And anyone who doesn't think politics is a constraint that agencies like the Corps are subject to lives in a dream world.

By the way, my background is in math and advanced IT and comms systems, so I have no special expertise in civil engineering. But I have over a quarter century working with federal agencies, and I understand first hand the pressures that they are under. Your view is that they knew the system would fail, mine is that they prayed it would hold. You look at all the money that's been spent and say how could they not do it right. I look at the funding profile over 41 years and am amazed that given the erratic pattern of funding that anything resembling levees was built at all. You fault them for not factoring in more powerful storm data, yet at no time did Congress ever alter the 1965 authorization that was universally accepted by both Congress and the Corps to design to mean design to a fast moving Cat 3 storm. What you attribute to stupidity or negligence my experience has taught me is more likely the systemic ineptitude that results from an entrenched bureaucratic system that can take 7 years or more from when a need is identified to get funding for a design and another 7-10 years to compete for construction funding. And that assumes your Congressional delegation is supporting the project.

If you want things to change in a positive way, one thing you can do is support, loudly, earmark reform, so Congress can't rearrange agencies' priorities based on their own whims. From the Washington Post on 9/8/05 - "In fact, more than any other federal agency, the Corps is controlled by Congress; its $4.7 billion civil works budget consists almost entirely of "earmarks" inserted by individual legislators. The Corps must determine that the economic benefits of its projects exceed the costs, but marginal projects such as the Port of Iberia deepening -- which squeaked by with a 1.03 benefit-cost ratio -- are as eligible for funding as the New Orleans levees."

While Senator Landrieu was yelling about levees after Katrina, before she was beating up the Corps about that $194 million Iberia project, which only came up with a 1.03 benefit-cost ratio after she inserted language in an emergency spending bill ordering the Corps to redo their benefit-cost calculations when the first time through the benefit cost ratio was less than 1. Apparently they got the message.

Enough for this round -

Regards

In 1965 Hurricane Betsy ... (Below threshold)
Barry Dauphin:

In 1965 Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans and flooded much of the 9th Ward. (upper and lower) Congress then went to the Corps and asked them to design a Hurricane Protection System that would protect against "the most severe meteorological conditions that are considered reasonably characteristic of the region."

It's interesting because Betsy reached Category 4 status in the Gulf. I remember riding out Betsy, as most New Orleanians rode out storms back then. So after Betsy, they planned for a weaker storm than Betsy?

>I would argue that it is t... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>I would argue that it is the Corps responsibility to build the best possible sytem within the constraints that they have.

They set their own restraints and they did it using 1959 data. I fault them for that. Call me Ahab.

>Your view is that they knew the system would fail, mine is that they prayed it would hold.

To paraphrase Tom Hanks... There's no "praying" in engineering. Crossing ones fingers is not a substitute for doing your job properly.

>You look at all the money that's been spent and say how could they not do it right.

No it has nothing to do with money. It didn't cost them extra money to use the right data. It didn't cost them any moeny to use real soil strenghts vs making data up. -- I don't know what the levees cost and frankly, I don't care in the context of this discussion. What I do care about is that they were abjectly negligent.

>You fault them for not factoring in more powerful storm data, yet at no time did Congress ever alter the 1965 authorization that was universally accepted by both Congress and the Corps to design to mean design to a fast moving Cat 3 storm.


NO NO NO NO NO and No... You missed that part of the story. (and we've had this discussion before) Congress did not approve the floodwalls in 1965. (they were not even thought of in 65) Each phase was approved in real time. The phase that failed was designed in the late 80s early 90s. FURTHER- The whole point of this article is that Congress never told them how robust to make the hurricane protection system. That was the Corps' responsibility and they ignored the new data EVEN AFTER the GAO called them out on it. --- You can't spin this.

>What you attribute to stupidity or negligence my experience has taught me is more likely the systemic ineptitude

OK you win. They were inept not stupid.

>If you want things to change in a positive way, one thing you can do is support, loudly, earmark reform, so Congress can't rearrange agencies' priorities based on their own whims.

Repeat after me... Bad engineering is not related to financing. Bad engineering is not related to financing. Bad engineering is not related to financing.

You CAN NOT (because I won't let you) try to make the case that this was a funding issue. That's bull shit spin and you know it. You are convieniently ignored the fact the Corps made at least a half dozen unfathomable engineering mistakes and those mistake -not your spin- destroyed a city.

You are rapidly losing credibility... You call me Ahab but you're Stevie Wonder.

>So after Betsy, they plann... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>So after Betsy, they planned for a weaker storm than Betsy?

Yes.

And Betsy (with almost no hurricane protecton system) did less damage to the city than Katria which was a confirmed cat 1 by the time she hit New Orelans.

Oh and mantis, I told my... (Below threshold)
mantis:

Oh and mantis, I told my wife the other night I was starting to like you and she threatened me with divorce. ;-)

If my girlfriend found out that you and I agreed on anything (which we do, on a good deal of issues), she would probably drop me in a second. Luckily, she doesn't read blogs (though she did give me the name mantis). Good thing she's not a mantis also, or else I'd be fucked ;).

As far as your wife goes, tell her I'm deranged, or else I am gradually being turned over. If it can happen to David Brock, it can happen to me in the reverse, right?

Ok, all kidding aside, I hope all is well with you and yours. I have a few friends and colleagues at Tulane who are in the same boat as you, and I hope that boat doesn't have to float on the waters of idiots much longer. May I suggest a blog devoted to this singular issue? Maybe it would do some good.

I've thought about it but 1... (Below threshold)
Paul:

I've thought about it but 1 post every 3-4 days does not a good blog make.

Speaking of idiots... The Mayor's race is soon. We can only hope.

Hmmm.Paul & mantis... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

Paul & mantis:

I dunno. I'm starting to see a "Brokeback Blog" thang happening here.

:):)

"What is chilling is the fa... (Below threshold)

"What is chilling is the fact that now the engineering specs for every USACoE "flood control" project can be legitimately called into question."
Posted by: JD at March 23, 2006 08:34 PM

Funny you should say that... I just read over at The Gates Are Open that "the part of Sacramento I live in (Natomas) is not protected from floods as well as the Army Corp of Engineers lead everyone to believe back in 1998 when they approved the building of thousands of new homes. In essence, a very light flood incident could end up with all of us living with the fishies."

Paul - You are dem... (Below threshold)
ts:

Paul -

You are demonstrating a remarkable naivete with respect to the process for federal government civil engineering projects if you think that the Congress approved engineering designs. The Corps undoubtedly made repeated presentations before members of Congress and committees, but those would have been to get approval for continued funding of the project. This was a project that had an orignal estimate of $85 million and a project length of 13 years. By 1982 the budget was nearly $800 million and the length was 43 years. When you "blow" the budget by $700 million, you bet you have to explain why to Congress. But that is to get appropriations, not engineering review and approval.

Do you have any concept of design to budget versus budget to design? Most government projects start out the second way and end up the first, because of the length of time it takes from the original design to get to complete construction - 50 years and counting on this one. Given this statement, I have to wonder. "It didn't cost them extra money to use the right data. It didn't cost them any moeny to use real soil strenghts vs making data up. -- I don't know what the levees cost and frankly, I don't care in the context of this discussion. What I do care about is that they were abjectly negligent." It sure does cost money to gather data. It can cost a whole lot of money depending on the project.

You write this and accuse me of spinning - "FURTHER- The whole point of this article is that Congress never told them how robust to make the hurricane protection system. That was the Corps' responsibility and they ignored the new data EVEN AFTER the GAO called them out on it." One fact that is not in dispute is that what was jointly understood by the Corps and by Congress is that the vague language of the 1965 authorization amounted to Cat3 protection. If you honestly think that the Corps, or any government agency, will go back to the design phase, once they are already in construction, you have no sense of the realities of the process. That isn't the best answer, may not even be the right answer, but it reflects the reality of how the funding gets approved and how funding streams are maintained.

Another thing you are wrong about - the Corps preliminary recommendation, which preceded the 1965 authorization, was for a barrier plan.

To pile on gratuitously, you claim the smoking gun is that the Corps knew that they had levee height problems along the drainage canals. That is true. But the 1982 GAO report did not call them out as you claim. The GAO report states that Corps proposed solution to this included "raising the levees, buidling floodgates at the mouths of the canals, building auxiliary pumping stations, and relocating the existing pumping stations near the lake." It also says that the Corps considered this feature "essential if the project is to be completely effective." Hardly the smackdown that you trumpeted in your post. At that time the Corps was still pushing for a barrier solution. That is why you should read source documents not just newspaper articles.

I understand that we are not going to reach agreement on this, but your own acknowledgement that you have no idea what levees cost should at least cause you to be more circumspect before demanding that the Corps, and only the Corps, be piked and displayed at the gates of the city.


>Do you have any concept of... (Below threshold)
Paul:

>Do you have any concept of design to budget versus budget to design?

ts... I'm trying to be reasonable. THE GOD DAMN THING DID NOT LIVE UP TO EVEN THE SPECIFICATIONS THEY USED MUCH LESS THE ONES THEY SHOULD HAVE USED.

YOU CAN NOT HIDE behind the fact that there are budget batteles in Congress..... That's dumbshit spin.

THE GOD DAMN THING WAS FAULTY.

Your own commets make my point. (inches from using the word numbskull)

"This was a project that had an orignal estimate of $85 million and a project length of 13 years. By 1982 the budget was nearly $800 million and the length was 43 years."

Congress gave them all but a blank freaking check and they still could barely mange to build something that would hold its onw weight.

Are you too freaking blind to see that?

IU'll give a fuller reply i... (Below threshold)
Paul:

IU'll give a fuller reply in the AM

ts... Answer 4 simple quesi... (Below threshold)
Paul:

ts... Answer 4 simple quesitons

1) Did the Corps design the hurricane protection system?

2) Did that system fail to perform to its design criteria due to poor design?

3) Did the catastrophic failure kill 1000+ people and destroy a city?

4) Was the Corps grossly negligent in their design?

You see ts... You can sing and dance, shuck and jive, and point to red-herrings a strawmen all day long.

You can spin better than Bill Clinton and you can play like The Wizard of Oz and tell us not to pay attention to enginners behind the cutrian...

But at the end of the song and dance routine, you can't deny that the answer to all the above questons is "YES."

This is precisely why the a... (Below threshold)

This is precisely why the argument was pressed so strenuously by New Orleans that "they thought they were safe". It is also - in a VERY large part - why those who lived behind these levees feel as if the federal government has a unique responsibility in this disaster.

And to ts: There is a code of ethics that defines the responsibilities of engineering projects that have the potential to affect life or property. Given the nature of the profession, it's absolutely crucial that code be followed. (I wrote about it here.)

By calling out the bald, unvarnished truth of the matter, these reports are taking early steps toward addressing this breach of ethical standards - but it's only the first part of what needs to happen.

This should never happen again.




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