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More Info Damns Corps in New Orleans

With each passing day, it is becoming more evident that Hurricane Katrina did not flood New Orleans.

This is probably the most bizarre thing I've ever blogged. It is completely unfathomable how this happened. But it did.


WASHINGTON -- When the Texas construction firm AquaTerra Contracting began work on an Army Corps of Engineers hurricane protection project on the West Bank, it encountered a serious problem: Its floodwalls wouldn't stand up straight in the mushy soil.

AquaTerra workers tried driving steel sheet piling down to the 55-foot depth the design required for the walls' foundation, company CEO Clay Zollars said. But the piling, driven along a new drainage canal near the Cousins Pump Station, began to lean inward.

Zollars said the corps went back to the drawing board and decided to better anchor the wall, nearly doubling the length of the steel foundation to 105 feet. That didn't work either.

"Before we completed the wall, it began to lean and sink also," Zollars said. "The pilings were inadequate. The corps corrected that by installing some additional reinforcing steel in the concrete, but the wall still is leaning."

The top of one section of the 10-foot concrete wall is more than a foot off the vertical, he said. AquaTerra is seeking $5 million it says the corps owes it for the extra work on the $11.1 million contract. Corps officials won't comment on the case because of the dispute.

A 10 foot floodwall more than a foot off vertical? That didn't ring alarm bells that something was wrong? If you were having a house built and the top of the wall was a foot askew from the bottom of the wall, would you move in? If the contractor said he couldn't do any better would you just accept it?

Before they could even finish the project the walls were both leaning AND sinking.

They drove the pilings down 105 feet and that didn't work either. It should have been obvious to a third grader the design was fundamentally flawed.

'A poor choice'

"They were struck with a bad situation, and they made a poor choice with those floodwalls, trying to put a structural wall on plastic soils. It's like putting bricks on Jell-O. There isn't a lot of support," said J. David Rogers, a veteran forensic engineer who specializes in dam and floodwall failures.

What is unclear is how the corps and its contractors went forward with designs that some engineers now say appear fundamentally flawed. A team of engineers at the University of California at Berkeley studying the levee failures said that the corps' design standards do not seem to have accounted for all the soil uncertainties, raising questions about the design of the entire levee system.

That's the big question. Why the hell did the Corps of Engineers continue to use a design that was so obviously flawed?

The challenges of building floodwalls in weak, wet soils are well-known to engineers. A corps design manual warns that "by their very nature, floodwalls are usually built in a flood plain which may have poor foundation conditions."

Unexpected problems with weak soil have cropped up before. The AquaTerra case resembles a 1990s dispute concerning the 17th Street Canal floodwall. Segments of that wall also tipped off-center when the concrete wall sections were poured, requiring additional work and sparking a legal tangle. As with AquaTerra, the corps left the leaning walls in place.

These walls can't support their own weight and they were supposed to stand up to a hurricane?

Yes, this stuff is enormously complicated but at some point common sense has to tell you have a problem. You don't need sophisticated computer models to tell you that if a floodwall can't support it's own weight it won't hold back much water.

Engineers say that the corps standards required an unusually low safety factor for the floodwalls, perhaps a remnant of a time when most levees protected sparsely populated rural areas, not cities and suburbs. A higher safety factor would require stronger walls -- and cost more.

The AquaTerra, 17th Street and London Avenue walls are all "I-wall" designs, the least expensive type of concrete floodwall, consisting of linked concrete sections built on a sheet pile foundation. Other types of walls have additional horizontal bracing, either at the base of the concrete sections or in piles extending diagonally into the earth.

The floodwalls that broke causing the most damaged where built less than 10 years ago which was about a half a century after billions of dollars of homes were built. Why did they still use an "unusually low safety factor?" Wouldn't you think in the last half century or so the corps would have noticed a few hundred thousands homes being built?

But some of the most damaging evidence yet released was buried in this article.

It's been obvious for about the last 100 years or so that the soil where the floodwalls were built was a problem. It should be noted that when presented with this problem in the form of leaning floodwalls, the Corps did NOT address the real problem (below ground) it added reinforcements to the concrete (above ground) to simply mask the problem. In engineering this is a big NO-NO. If the skin is peeling off an airplane wing you don't darken the windows so the passengers won't notice.

Katrina did not flood New Orleans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did.

And on a personal note: Would all the arm chair engineers from last month who defended the Corps so vigorously and said I was just being emotional like to apologize now?


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference More Info Damns Corps in New Orleans:

» Conservative Culture linked with No Viagra for you poor sex offenders - Katrina relief

» A Blog For All linked with Sorry About The Levees

» Mike's Noise linked with To Build or Not To Build

Comments (24)

You want a city that won't ... (Below threshold)
Tim in PA:

You want a city that won't flood, either give the Corps more money (or, this being New Orleans, make sure th money actually GETS to them); they can't raise taxes or raise their own budget. Or better yet, DONT BUILD THE DAMN CITY IN A SWAMP BELOW SEA LEVEL. Look at how Venice ended up, it's not like they didn't know this would happen. The Corps has a long history of being given very large and very stupid engineering tasks, especially around the mouth of the Mississippi. People insist on living places where they have no busines living and ignoring mother nature; in the long run engineers can't save people from their own stupidity.

Tim in PA, I second that.</... (Below threshold)

Tim in PA, I second that.

So easy to just write off e... (Below threshold)

So easy to just write off everyone in N.O. as "stupid" for living there, isn't it? I just looked at the flood elevation maps, and was surprised to learn that one of the most heavily damaged areas, with the largest number (so far) of "damaged beyond repair" homes, is actually in the area above the base flood elevation, where flood insurance is not even a requirement. But I guess everyone was stupid to move there, too.

Hey Tim,Let me ask... (Below threshold)

Hey Tim,

Let me ask you a question.....

What happens when the power goes out when there is a blizzard in PA?

Answer? You freeze to death asshole.

You ignorantly opine People insist on living places where they have no busines living and ignoring mother nature; in the long run engineers can't save people from their own stupidity.

And you live in PA? You are living on more of a man made life support system than New Orleans. You need heat just to survive the winter.

This was a 300 year hurricane but it freezes every winter. You you sir are stupid for living in PA.


Do you see what a dickhead you truly are being?

And Laura you are not any smarter.

Whoa James...Let's... (Below threshold)

Whoa James...

Let's not call people names like assholes and dickhead.... On my posts, the proper term is dumbass.

What happens wh... (Below threshold)
Mark A. Flacy:

What happens when the power goes out when there is a blizzard in PA?

Answer? You freeze to death asshole.

My god! I never knew that PA was a devoid of human life prior to the invention of electricity! Or did everyone migrate like birds to warmer areas every autumn?

heh- Mark good point... </p... (Below threshold)

heh- Mark good point...

But from watching about 5 episodes of "Survivor" I wouldn't put too much money on modern Americans' fire building skills. KnowhatImean?

Katrina did not flood Ne... (Below threshold)

Katrina did not flood New Orleans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did.

Paul, I can't make the jump to the conclusion that you do. Not quite yet.

Ahem. Woodburners and coal... (Below threshold)

Ahem. Woodburners and coalstoves trump electricity any day.

Comparing NO to PA winters is a big stretch since us PAers (well, some of us) know how to survive a winter even without electricity and all that magical modern stuff. At least I do, anyway.

Solomon2, more good work as... (Below threshold)

Solomon2, more good work as usual. You'll be convinced soon enough.

Shoddy construction is always a concern, but there are 2 things to consider.

1) The Corps has been sued multiple times by construction companies who could not get the designs to work as drawn. In this story, the company sunk 105 feet pilings and it STILL did not work. I suppose some contractors might have cut corners but from the looks of it, they had trouble making it work doing it per spec.

2) But let's say (for discussion) that the contractors did cut corners... Whose responsible for oversight? (Can you say the Corps?)

Bottom line, the walls failed WELL before they were topped and the Corps KNEW they had a problem with the walls just holding themselves up long before the hurricane.

Look, you are right and I am wrong in the whole waiting for evidence thing... (I admit that) But having said that, the little bit of evidence we are waiting for is going to back me. -- Everyday we get more news that does.

So yes the scientist in me needs (a little) more proof. The realist in me doesn't. It's a done deal.

"Yes, this stuff is enormou... (Below threshold)

"Yes, this stuff is enormously complicated but at some point common sense has to tell you have a problem. You don't need sophisticated computer models to tell you that if a floodwall can't support it's own weight it won't hold back much water."

It's even more complicated than you think, Paul, because it's easy to tell you that floodwalls that can't support it's own weight can, even still, hold back lots of water and it's known as it's different resistance to horizontal and vertical forces. That's not to say that, in this instance, the wall didn't succumb to the flood waters because of poor design, but this claim is, on its face, unproved by this report.

Dusty I'm not 100% sure the... (Below threshold)

Dusty I'm not 100% sure the point you are trying to make.

But if you're saying it is ok for floodwalls to not even support their own weight, then I'm sure the Corps has job opportunities for people like you.

Just do it in Kansas would ya?

Paul, everything in NO sink... (Below threshold)

Paul, everything in NO sinks. The subsoil in NO can't support itself so it is a difficult situation all round and even more so at the interface of land and water. I'd certainly like to know more about the condition AquaTerra describes but tipping is not the same as sinking particularly with sheet piling.

To understand what I meant in my previous post, consider yourself standing on a skate board. Your weight (dead load) is a force in the vertical direction and you are stable and there is no problem with the skate board because you bought a really good one. Now Jay Tea comes along and pushes you and you move, that's the horizontal force (live load) and the skateboard is unstable. Now turn the skateboard 90 degrees and you have what I am talking about with flood barrier -- only now the vertical force, the weight (dead load) is not supportable but the horizontal force the flood waters (live load) can be resisted.

Dusty's got the physics cor... (Below threshold)
too true:

Dusty's got the physics correct.

It doesn't help tho that NO was politically protected from discussion of the risks involved - and of whether at some point it wasn't cost-effective to continue to try to battle the sea and the river's erosive effects.

So they did what they could and things held together ... for a while.

That's true, too true. But... (Below threshold)

That's true, too true. But I won't even begrudge NOer's ignoring that discussion and a though a small part of the T-P hints (at least that's how I read it) that somehow the Corps considers that thus, maybe, putting some onus on them in the reader's mind, I disagree with that entirely. Here's the T-P quote that bothers me:

"In designing a wall, engineers weigh not only structural questions, but also issues of expense versus the high cost of failure."

Engineers weigh the structural "questions" (sheesh) and consider the appropriate factors of safety based on knowns, unknowns and then scientifically fudge for the unknown unknowns, if necessary. We EXPECT the design to work no matter what, based on the design criteria, in this case a Cat 3 storm.

Another thing that bothers me about the T-P story it is not clear what they mean by sheet piling and, thus other readers might be in worse shape. I had the impression that they were talking about waffle section sheet steel driven into the soil, but I find it hard to believe this is what was driven to a depth of 55 or 104 feet. For those depths, I would expect to see steel beams driven at spacing of 8' oc with timber beams stacked between them to some sufficient depth. The latter method certainly bring questions of groundwater conditions more into play. But I'm no flood barrier design expert and would have to look at the design sections for a better understanding.

I am also bothered by "Jello" references particularly because so much of the flood barriers have withstood both sinking (the significant differential type) and lateral forces of the flood surge kind. To me, that means it can be done and NO'ers can live there (though not restrictionlessly.)

Dusty, maybe you missed the... (Below threshold)

Dusty, maybe you missed the news. The walls did not hold the load.

Again, if you don't think that the walls falling down faster than they can prop them up was the sign of a problem then maybe you have bright future with the Corps.

This week I watched my 3 year old niece stack blocks. When the stack started to wobble, she stopped what she was doing and lined the lower ones all up as to address the instability.

Apparently my 3 year niece understands it a bit better than you and the guys in the Corps.

To everyone who's saying th... (Below threshold)

To everyone who's saying that New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt: Where should we put the port then? Topeka, KS, perhaps? It's not that the founders wanted to put the city in a low swampy spot inbetween a major river and a large lake, but we needed (and still need) a major port near the mouth of the Mississippi River, and New Orleans is about as far inland as it's economically feasable to put such a port. That's the hand that geography has dealt us. It ain't ideal, or even fair. It's just the way it is. The most cost-effective way to move products out of the Midwest is to ship them down the River. To get them to foriegn markets, you need a port.

Paul, with your analogy of ... (Below threshold)

Paul, with your analogy of your niece's block-building, you bring up a point that I've only heard mentioned once since Katrina.

The report was that at some point in the past, there was considerable interest in reinforcing the levees, but the plan met too much resistance from businessmen and homeowners who would have been relocated to make room for the wider levee bases.

What may come to light (eventually) is that the ACoE was given an impossible set of parameters within which to work (make a levee that's "this" strong, only using "this" much space), and subsequently exhausted their budget and capabilities trying to meet those demands.

That doesn't excuse their claims that the walls would hold, when engineers likely knew they could be easily compromised, but we may soon see a little more of the "big picture" within which the ACoE was working.

Sheet piling described <a h... (Below threshold)
Ric Locke:

Sheet piling described here.

It's not a single sheet, but individual sections that are driven in such a way that they lock together to form a continuous wall.

I'm old enough to remember them building I10 across the Atchafalaya. Endless lines of dump trucks bringing in rock fill, turning around, dumping their load, and *plurg* the rock disappeared and the mud crept back. That whole area is basically mud down as deep as it's even halfway reasonable to go. Sheet piling is supposed to be wide enough that tilting it is harder (impossible, ideally) but in those soil conditions it's rather like trying to make a spoon stand up in porridge.

IMO the only thing that *might* work is old-fashioned earthen levees, so wide they can't tilt and so heavy they can't move. Even those would have to be added to occasionally as they sank into the mud, to keep the top at the same level, and they'd be so wide they'd take up a significant part of the city's otherwise-usable area -- which is why New Orleans didn't want them.


Bo Diddle: You have a grea... (Below threshold)

Bo Diddle: You have a great point which is why it is important to distinguish between levees and flood walls. The 17th Street Canal flood barriers were pretty much walls (viewed from the water side the land side having a higher berm elevation to address moment forces otherwise introduced from water level loads) for just this reason -- lack of horizontal space.

The reason for the deep sheet piling is to distribute the heavy concentrated dead load of the wall which you then have to add to the heavy, more concentrated dead load of the steel sheeting just to resist sinking. But in using a levee, as Ric below you suggests, you'd still need to look at the surcharge load of a earthen levee based on the height -- is it less pounds per square (foot or inch) than the soil can support. The one advantage with a levee, and why I tend to agree with Ric's preference for levees, is you can keep dumping soil on top as it sinks (or erodes, for that matter.)

Ric Locke: That's a good reference for sheet piling. The width of the individual sheet isn't a big issue. The sheets are like tongue and groove (moreso ball and socket) so essentially when interlocked, they are 'wide'. My question is that they are driven the way you pound a stake into the ground. It's nice to see that place offer 109 foot long sheets (if I read that correctly) but those are rarely used due to transport and driving (pounding into the ground) issues. Mostly it is shorter lengths then you attach another one on top and drive some more. Usually they are connected by full depth, full length welds mostly to withstand the stress of driving but also to make the connections rigid and not introduce "pinned" like (think door hinge) connections.

That's why I would like to see the actual designs sections. I cannot see a 55' depth "wall" (because of the ball and socket sheet connections) just tilting. Regular spoons in porridge, yes, but hugely wide spoons by comparison, no. Certainly not in the midst of driving. But even if it ended up tilted because that was introduced in the driving process, I can't see in steady state that anything relating to tilting gives reason for thinking this shows failure.

And let me tell ya, if this is one solid wall of steel for hundreds of feet and 50 or so feet of depth, I don't see flood surge induced ground water pressure making it from one side of the wall to the other and making boils in weeks much less 12 to 18 hours.

So I wonder about folding failure of the steel below the bottom of concrete wall. That's if the failure was at a location where they used sheet piling per the web page you provide a link to. I also wonder about pinned connections and gaps and joints. I've seen nothing yet to impress me about the tilting 'smoking gun'.

>And let me tell ya, if thi... (Below threshold)

>And let me tell ya, if this is one solid wall of steel for hundreds of feet and 50 or so feet of depth, I don't see flood surge induced ground water pressure making it from one side of the wall to the other and making boils in weeks much less 12 to 18 hours.

Heh- Then you clearly haven't been following the story.

For starters the sheet piles were (we now know) apparently only 10 feet down.

Second, read this that was written some time ago but the theory they are talking about is now all but accepted even by the corps.

google 'katrina levee peat' and see what you get. It's been in the news for weeks.

>I've seen nothing yet to impress me about the tilting 'smoking gun'.

Of course you haven't. You have not been following the story, you have no idea what you are talking about then you say you didn't see any proof. No wonder.

If you keep your eyes closed you are unlikely to see any at all.

Spend about 5-8 hours with google reading all the stories you missed for the last 2 months and get back to me.

In the mean time you are babbling about something you know nothing about.

geeze... Spent less time typing and more time reading and you'll save everyone's time.

For those interested in loo... (Below threshold)
Paul B.:

For those interested in looking at the actual design documents, they are being publicly released at the USACE New Orleans Hurricane Protection Projects Data website:


Thought y'all might be inte... (Below threshold)

Thought y'all might be interested in this e-mail I received during Katrina. This shows the fault falling on our President Bush.

"CHRONOLOGY.... Here's a timeline that outlines the fate of both FEMA and
flood control projects in New Orleans under the Bush administration:

January 2001: Bush appoints Joe Allbaugh, a crony from Texas, as head of
FEMA. Allbaugh has no previous experience in disaster management.

April 2001: Budget Director Mitch Daniels announces the Bush
administration's goal of privatizing much of FEMA's work. In May, Allbaugh
confirms that FEMA will be downsized: "Many are concerned that federal disaster
assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program...." he
said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the
degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is anappropriate

2001: FEMA designates a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the
three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country." (also
quoted in the Houston

December 2002: After less than two years at FEMA, Allbaugh announces he
isleaving to start up a consulting firm that advises companies seeking to
dobusiness in Iraq. He is succeeded by his deputy, Michael Brown, who, like
Allbaugh, has no previous experience in disaster management.

March 2003: FEMA is downgraded from a cabinet level position and folded
into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is refocused on fighting
acts of terrorism.

2003: Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA's preparation and
planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response.
FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.

Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation
fundingrequests. Says Jefferson Parish flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue: "You
would think we would get maximum consideration....This is what the grant program
called for. We were more than qualified for it."

June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New
Orleans is slashed. Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri
comments: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to
handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and Isuppose that's the price we

June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the
Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created afterthe May
1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany

August 2005: While New Orleans is undergoing a slow motion catastrophe,
Bush mugs for the cameras, cuts a cake for John McCain, plays the guitar for
MarkWills, delivers an address about V-J day, and continues with his
vacation.When he finally gets around to acknowledging the scope of the unfolding
disaster, he delivers only a photo op on Air Force One and a flat,defensive,
laundry list speech in the Rose Garden.

A crony with no relevant experience was installed as head of FEMA.
Mitigation budgets for New Orleans were slashed even though it was known to be
one of the top three risks in the country. FEMA was deliberately downsized
as part of the Bush administration's conservative agenda to reducethe role of
government. After DHS was created, FEMA's preparation and planning
functions were taken away.

Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the
size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did
happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate
Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at
the expense of operational competence. It's the Bush administration in a
-- Henry Breitrose
Professor of Communication
Department of Communication
Stanford University
Stanford, California USA 94305-2050


Paul, I really can't see ho... (Below threshold)

Paul, I really can't see how the Corps doesn't bear the primary responsibility for the floodwall failures. My latest update offers another guess - gossip, really - as to how some construction flaws may have happened, and I think investigators should pursue the appropriate paper trails.

Still, even with the low safety factor, it is possible the floodwall may have held - if it had been constructed according to specification. That doesn't let the Corps off the hook for the inappropriately low safety factor of the design or its failure to oversee the contractors.






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