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Shoddy levee work shows we're stuck on stupid

It took Louisiana native, affectionately (or ruefully) known by the soldiers under his command as the “Ragin’ Cajun,” Army Lt. Gen. Russell HonorĂ©, to succinctly summarize the problem with the political establishment, in and out of office, in Louisiana: we’re stuck on stupid.

The phrase describes the inadequate job the local and state media are doing to determine the real causes and sources of problems that led to the Hurricane Katrina disaster – if we don’t know these, we can’t fix them. It describes the inadequate actions taken by those elected to national office such as Sen. Mary Landrieu to ensure that the New Orleans area had the infrastructure to resist such a powerful storm. It describes the inadequate emergency preparation actions and reactions taken by state and local officials such as Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin before and after the storm hit. Worst of all, it describes the negligence of local government such as the Orleans Levee District to protect the parish.

Not surprisingly, the national media broke the latest story on the real cause of the tragedy, below-specification flood protection. Katrina’s effects appear not to have exceeded the design specifications of these structures, contrary to the official explanation emanating from the Army Corps of Engineers. Despite convincing evidence otherwise, the Corps seems determined to stick to its story:

In an interview Tuesday, Corps spokesman Paul Johnston said the agency still believes that storm surges overtopped the concrete floodwalls near the lake, then undermined the earthen levees on which they were perched, setting the stage for the breaches that emptied the lake into the city…. [H]e emphasized that Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane when it smashed into the Gulf Coast, whereas Congress authorized the Corps to protect New Orleans against a storm only up to Category 3. "The event exceeded the design," Johnston said.

This is only a half true. The part of the storm that was Category 4 passed many miles to the east of these levees – probably at least 25 miles from the 17th Street Canal floodwall between Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. The winds there likely were only Category 3 in strength, if even that. And, of course, the whole notion that the event exceeded the design has been called into question by the researchers from the LSU Hurricane Center.

Their conclusions, that poor design and/or faulty construction allowed breaches to occur, put the onus on the two entities that oversaw the building of these levees, the Corps and the Levee District, and contractors, if any, who performed shoddy work. Given the state’s history with tolerance of inefficiency, if not outright graft, in construction (for example, highways), it’s not a stretch to imagine some contractors are to blame in collusion with government officials.

And from its own information it would appear that levees built under the Levee District’s supervision were the ones identified by the researchers as failing below specifications (others they observed were overtopped rather than breached). It’s just one more consequence of a government body, appointed by the governor and mayor, whose chairman spends a great deal of time investigating media critics and asking for a pay raise on top of that, instead of using such energy to ensure quality flood protection.

This disaster demonstrates yet again the wages of a good-old-boy (and-girl) network infusing the political scene, both in and out of government. Maybe that’s why a majority in the country would rather relocate New Orleans that rebuild it.

Still, the sheer magnitude of the disaster and elected or appointed officials’ culpability regarding it may be what rouses enough Louisianans to bring about changes concerning them, starting with the 2006 elections. There’s hope; it already seems we’re exporting one drain on the state. Now that it is subsidizing the Hornets, maybe Oklahoma City is going to take part of our quota of getting stuck on stupid.


Anonymous said...

As an engineer with 30 years of construction experience, the overwhelming majority of cases of construction failure occur because of substandard materials and contractors cutting corners to increase profits.

Ron said...

How is it in all this finger pointing, speculation about how various failures happened, etc., that we hear no more about the large barge that supposedly wind driven, knocked down one wall, and was subsequently found below the breach, far outside the canal?

How is it that other large boats found inside the city are not equally potential wind-driven causes of destruction of weak canal walls? Where are the computer models that address these potential causes?

Ron said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

ummm, seems likr shoddy or substandard construction could be due to the ever increasing practice of the bush administration to hand out no bid contracts to it's friends. yes this practice extends to the corp of engineers...check out green houses firing for exposing this practice

Anonymous said...

In 1995 the Corps of engineers spent $621,000 of taxpayers money to rebuild the Bayou Segnette Hurricane flood levee. The structural integrity of the levee had been undermined in places, by the burrowing of Armadillos. Why did they allow the problem to get so bad? Have they had an ongoing program of checking the levee since 1995? Have they taken measures to capture or kill the Armadillos so that they did not go back and damage the newly rebuilt levee? Did the West Jefferson Levee district have an ongoing monitoring program of levee damage?