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Will the Corps of Engineers Kill Again?

You would think that after the Army Corps of Engineers killed over 1000 people and destroyed roughly 200 billion dollars in property in New Orleans that they would treat potential catastrophic failures in other areas with increased caution.

You would think that.

I'd expect angry denials, obfuscation and lies. I'd be right of course.

The Lake O dike: 20 years of warnings

Two months ago, the Army Corps of Engineers reacted with anger when state consultants called the Herbert Hoover Dike "a grave and imminent danger" to human life.

The consultants likened the leak-prone dike around Lake Okeechobee to the levees that failed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, saying only heroic repairs had staved off similar disasters in the Glades. The corps' leader in Florida, Col. Robert Carpenter, denounced those words as "sensationalism," "cavalier," even "downright irresponsible."

But the corps' own files are filled with more than 20 years of reports outlining the dike's dangers -- at times in words nearly as dire as the state's.

The documents warned of "a very serious risk of catastrophic failure," declared much of the dike "hazardous" at high lake levels and spoke of "the real potential for human suffering and loss of life" if the dike collapsed.

For cities along the lake, the corps wrote, "flooding of these communities would be severe and warning times would be limited." Emergency repairs in 1995 "may have prevented a breach," the corps' own outside experts reported three years later.

Corps leaders see no conflict between their past warnings and their recent assurances that they have the dike under control. They say they're intimately aware of its dangers but also confident they can handle them.

Still, hundreds of pages of federal and state reports dating to the mid-1980s offer an unsettling picture of the corps' issuing ever-stronger warnings of potential disaster, while the solutions remain decades in the future. As in New Orleans, the studies of the dike's dangers came much faster than the money to fix them:

• In 1984, the corps reported water seeping through the dike near Pahokee and South Bay. At the time, the lake was at 16.5 feet above sea level, well below the maximum the corps thought the dike could hold.

• In 1986, the corps reported that a section of dike near Port Mayaca failed to meet recommended safety standards for structures that hold water.

The same report warned of the dangers of seepage flowing through a dike. If not stopped, those kinds of leaks "will ultimately create a potential for the failure of the entire structure."

• In 1993, a more detailed study declared large portions of the dike at risk for various types of leaks and failures. From South Bay to Port Mayaca, it found "a high potential for instability of the levees due to seepage pressures."

• In 1998, the corps' expert panel called the dike "unsafe" and recommended that planning for repairs begin immediately. The corps itself echoed that recommendation a year later, warning that inaction would subject residents "to an unacceptable risk of dike failure and the catastrophic consequences of such a failure."

Then came the years of further studies, as the corps filed the legally required paperwork and designed, redesigned and re-redesigned the improvements that it says will make the dike safe for future generations.

But even today, the corps offers little hope for a lasting solution anytime soon. It finally began the long-promised dike improvements in December, saying it could finish the $300 million-plus project by 2020 if the money from Washington keeps flowing. But construction flaws discovered in late spring put the work on indefinite hold.

What I find most disquieting is that Corps still considers themselves and their structures to be infallible and even above professional review. Other engineers are not impressed by the Corps behavior either:

Even some fellow engineers have erupted in frustration at the corps' initial response to the state's findings.

"It sounds like we're dealing with a federal entity that doesn't yet recognize that there's a problem," complained Lennart Lindahl, a board member of the South Florida Water Management District, at a meeting June 7. The district is the corps' partner in managing the lake, as well as the agency that commissioned the state's dike report.

"I'm pretty much appalled at some of the public statements and the positions they've taken with regard to the dike," said Lindahl, a professional engineer from Tequesta. "You can't talk (about) this problem and make it go away. This is not a fairy tale."

District Executive Director Carol Wehle, also an engineer, had her own bemused reaction after Carpenter reassured South Bay residents in May that "we had four hurricanes in 2004, and that dike is still there. ... It's because God left it there."

The next day, Wehle e-mailed Gov. Jeb Bush: "Yes, Colonel Carpenter said God would protect the dike!"

The Corps spokesman in Florida -much like his counterpart in New Orleans- has become a laughing stock. If you read the rest of the article, you'll see an all too familiar story. The Corps denies anything is wrong or people are in danger in public while in private they know of the danger and actually use that to pry more money from Washington.

Then when the problems don't get fixed, the Corps tries to blame Congress for not sending enough money. They tried that in New Orleans but as I've documented in earlier pieces, Congress all but gave the Corps a blank check in New Orleans and we saw their results.

I hope for the residents who live below this dike that Congress exercises more oversight over the Corps than they have in the past. We know the Corps' track record - and it ain't pretty.


Comments (13)

This is why when I need civ... (Below threshold)
The Listkeeper:

This is why when I need civil engineering done, I call the SEABEES!

When I was in the construct... (Below threshold)
stan25:

When I was in the construction business, we had an adage: If you wanted job that was a mess, send in an engineer. If you wanted a nice clean job, do it and get it done, before the engineer showed up.

Most of these so-called engineers have never been out in the trenches to see how much their tinkering makes a mess of things. They get all of their knowledge from a book and no matter how much you argue with them, they say what is in the book is right.

Hmmmm sounds like a few liberals that are in this country.

South Bay and Pahokee are v... (Below threshold)
Rick:

South Bay and Pahokee are very rural areas. Most of the area is Sugar Cane fields.

The Water Management district keeps a close watch on the lake level. If a storm is coming they will start lowering the lake.

I do not think the risk is as great as New Orleans.

Rick

Sounds to me like some good... (Below threshold)

Sounds to me like some good old-fashioned capitalism can fix this problem. We have a lot of private engineering firms in this country. Some build huge projects such as dikes and dams around the world (Bechtel comes to mind, there are a couple of others).

I would explore the idea of placing the maintenance of these structures to private engineering firms with heavy financial penalties for failures.

While the Corps of Engineers should still be in the business of planning and policy, particularly in the design of large scale systems such a the Mississippi River, the maintenance of these systems should be let to organizations with a direct tangible consequence for the failure of them rather than only political consequences as is currently the case. A further suggestion would be that large systems be let to a single overall contractor as there are often synergistic interactions in such systems that are not apparent when the focus is on the management of a single structure that might be a part of such a system.

The Corps should get private engineering firms involved early and there should be a clear feedback loop for field maintainance information to be fed back into what is often an ongoing process.

This is what the Corps does... (Below threshold)
epador:1) Corps un... (Below threshold)
Paul:

epador:

1) Corps underbuilds something.

2) "5 year storms" destroy it.

3) Corps says they can offer a panecea is only that damn Congress would only give them more money to fix the project they screwed up the first time.

Sounds par for the Corps to me.

Rick I don't know the area ... (Below threshold)
Paul:

Rick I don't know the area but you are clearly there is not a million people below it as in New Orlenas. But to someone many miles awy this paragraph from the story didn't sound too comforting....

"The consequences of a dike breach could hardly be more ominous. The event that inspired the dike's construction, the 1928 hurricane that sloshed Lake Okeechobee into Belle Glade, killed more than 2,500 people, possibly more than died in Katrina. Combining the 1928 storm and a 1926 hurricane that struck Moore Haven, the lake has killed roughly as many people as Al-Qaeda did on Sept. 11, 2001."

One problem is that there a... (Below threshold)
Tom:

One problem is that there are two Corps of Engineers.

The first is the commissioned, active duty corps. They are the guys who bridge rivers, blow up things, etc., Warriors.

Then there is the Civilian side. They build dams and dikes and so forth.

There are military in the civilian side, but not the reverse.

But what do I know, I'm a submarine driver.

I am glad that people here ... (Below threshold)
doctorj:

I am glad that people here are FINALLY waking up to the incompetence of the COE. This is what Paul has been trying to tell you for a year! The tragedy in New Orleans is a wake up call to everyone that is protected by federal levees (or dykes or dams). Don't trust them with your lives. Get outside verification and listen to them when they tell you there are problems. The consequences to everything you cherish are in the balance.

Paul,There was no ... (Below threshold)
Rick:

Paul,

There was no "water management" administration at that time. South Florida used to have lots of floods.

They always lower the lake before hurricane season. Here is a useful link.

http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/h2o/plots/okehp.gif

I think the risk is low and can be managed without shrill grandstanding.

Rick

Well Rick it's a damn share... (Below threshold)
Paul:

Well Rick it's a damn share the Corps disagrees with you. -- At least on every other Tuesday.

They need to figure out how... (Below threshold)
Bob L.:

They need to figure out how to lower the lake into the everglades instead of dumping all that crud into the coastal estuaries.

I'm so sick of the whining ... (Below threshold)
Chris:

I'm so sick of the whining and finger pointing to one group. I have no affiliation with the Army COE, but from everything I've seen, read, and researched, they weren't the only ones at fault.
1. They are told by our elected representatives where to commit their resources - they make recommendations, but do not decide where to go or ULTIMATELY how much they can spend
2. They are constrained by money, manpower, AND acceptable measures of engineering. Why didn't they build the levees from steel? Why weren't they 50 feet higher? Why not this...why not that...hindsight is always 20/20.
3. The COE is not tasked, nor have they ever been tasked, with devising ideal, infallible solutions. Their job is to engineer large-scale solutions to natural problems. They're big jobs with many variables and unforeseen circumstances.
4. If the COE (or any government entity) spent as much as they wanted on a project it may turn out perfectly...but then there wouldn't be enough money to go around.
5. Private companies would inevitably end up costing more than the Army COE and that means people in other places will be just as upset about their needs not being met by their tax dollars.

The bottom line is that what the COE says the situation is usually happens to be right. They plan and are directed for so many scenarios and when something goes beyond that it's because of a force of nature, not simply a man-made disaster. New Orleans is below sea level. No engineering is going to change that. Pontificating is all well-and-good, but unless you've worked through everything like experience, situational history, legal responsibility, financial allocation, and politics, you're just another person adding to the problems.




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