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.

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13 Comments

  1. The Listkeeper July 19, 2006
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