Report Shows Mix of Decisions Resulted in Failed New Orleans Levees

July 12, 2007

There was no single decision made involving the New Orleans hurricane-protection levee system that shaped its failure to defend the area from flooding resulting from Hurricane Katrina, according to a comprehensive study of the system over the past 50 years.

Rather, an Army Corps of Engineers report, released June 11, spreads blame over a complex combination of political, economic and engineering decisions made without a routine review of how those choices affected the system as a whole.

“Over the 50-year period of time (that the levees were being built), there was a tyranny of incremental decisions at all levels – not just by the federal government, but by local and state officials, too – and over a period of time, those incremental decisions led to the loss of a vision of the project as a system,” said Tom Waters, chief of planning and policy for the corps.

The authors emphasize that they avoided placing blame, and in several cases take pains to report that they found no evidence indicating corps officials knowingly made decisions that would weaken the hurricane-protection system.

Yet the report paints a picture of the corps failing to employ the best available science on the strength of storms and the height of surge, often because of political and financial obstacles from Congress and local officials, as well as from industrial and environmental lobbies.

And although the corps’ top official last year admitted to “the catastrophic failure with one of our projects,” the agency’s second-in-command on Tuesday seemed to contradict that, suggesting the agency could not possibly have prevented the levee breaches.

Katrina would have overwhelmed the levee system even it were correctly built to the design standards in place before the storm, said Major Gen. Don Riley, the corps’ director of civil works, during a news conference about the report.

“Any system designed in the 1950s, or even after Hurricane Betsy, would not have withstood something like Katrina,” Riley said.

Among the decisions the authors highlighted:

-The switch in 1984 from a plan to build barrier gates at the Chef Menteur and Rigolets passes, and at Seabrook in the Industrial Canal, to a plan calling for higher earthen levees on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
-The decision by Congress requiring the corps to abandon plans to build self-closing gates at the ends of drainage canals in New Orleans, in favor of a plan supported by the Orleans Levee Board and Sewerage & Water Board to build higher floodwalls along the canals. The report also examines a corps decision to use shorter sheet piling to anchor floodwalls in the canals, which ultimately helped cause their failure.
-The failure of local corps officials to use updated data on land heights, relative to sea level, in building levees and walls throughout the system.
-The corps’ failure to adjust levee and wall plans to take into account new research defining the power of hurricanes that could occur in the Gulf of Mexico.

The study was written by Douglas Woolley and Leonard Shabman, two nationally recognized economists with long ties to the report’s sponsor, the corps’ Institute of Water Resources.

The report concludes that many factors delayed completion of construction of the levee system, including difficulty by local sponsors in obtaining rights of way for levees and walls; difficulty in garnering support and money required to pay the projects’ local share; litigation that slowed decision-making; and the repeated need to return to Congress for more money.

Indeed, money may have been the biggest obstacle for levee completion, according to the report.

Between 1973 and 1983, when the corps made many of the key design decisions, the United States suffered the worst inflationary period in its history. Levee construction estimates skyrocketed from about $65 million in the 1960s to $800 million by the 1990s.

And after 1980, the corps found its budget frozen by a Congress attempting to deal with its own budgetary problems and a rapid increase in the number of similar water projects being proposed nationwide, the report said.

If the corps faced problems outside its control, however, it never raised the alarm, even as new data on the strength of storms and their surge made clear the agency hadn’t protected New Orleans from the worst potential storms. Instead, for 35 years, those documents reported that the corps expected to reach its hurricane-protection goal.

In the early 1970s, the corps recommended a barrier plan that would have employed floodgates to keep storm surge out of Lake Pontchartrain and the canals leading into the city. But the fight over that plan and its alternative – one for higher levees – delayed the work for years and ultimately produced a levees-only system that failed catastrophically.

The report also found that corps officials failed to incorporate proper height information in the construction of levees and walls throughout the region.

The corps also failed to adjust levee designs as new information about the intensity and frequency of hurricanes became available, the report said.

Information from: The Times-Picayune,

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