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article imagePoorly Armored New Orleans Takes the Bullet For Katrina (Part 3)

By Carol Forsloff     Mar 19, 2009 in Environment
“It's been 4 years,” he said. “People aren't interested in something that happened years ago.” The bookstore owner told me he lacked Katrina books because it was old news. But Katrina's news isn't old at all in a world where lives come first.
This is the third installment in a series. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.
The Louisiana hurricanes and the levees are today contemporary news. They are with us as politicians sort out the economy and make decisions about where to spend money. With a tight budget during a recession, folks need to have evidence that what they need is important enough for funds to be spared that might be needed somewhere else. Economists lead the pack on preaching caution. Debate rages in Congress about money being thrown around. So revisiting Hurricane Katrina is critical when it comes to deciding what's really important, as my conversation with the book store owner of Natchitoches, Louisiana points out. That's because non-sympathetic protest might interrupt the flow of funds at times when people at risk need them most. Risk analysis is critical as the follow up report of the American Society of Engineers maintained in November 2006.
Gray-haired and well-meaning J. Michael explained when I inquired about the books he now carries on Hurricane Katrina that he really needed his shelves for timely items. I wasn't surprised. Where I live in north central Louisiana folks seemed to lose interest just weeks after the storm, as television images disappeared. People have often heard that Louisiana is really three states: the Southern Cajun section, the north central areas, and New Orleans. The one “state, ” the north central part relatively unaffected by Hurricane Katrina, lost no time moving on as interest was lost as well. I wasn't surprised that the bookstore owner looked on the topic as something old news to many people, but I was very concerned as well. Because it's back to the money and lives again when important choices are made.
The critical nature of levee maintenance and safety procedures has been outlined in a series of articles and documents provided by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The following quote outlines the urgency of proper planning, organization, construction and maintenance:
“There was far too little priority or urgency given to the hurricane protection system by its designers, operators, political leaders at all levels of government, and the people who lived in its shadow,” said Hurricane Katrina External Review Panel (ERP) Chair Dr. David Daniel, P.E., president of the University of Texas at Dallas. “The lessons we have learned from the devastating tragedy in New Orleans will have profound implications for other American communities, and should serve as a sobering reminder to people nationwide that we must place the protection of public safety, health and welfare at the forefront of our nation’s priorities.”
Hurricane Protection
Graphically represented here are three main hurricane protection systems designed to protect New Orleans and surrounding parishes from flooding that can be caused by hurricanes. The responsibility for the design and construction of the system of levees that failed during Katrina belongs to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, but the maintenance is undertaken by local levee boards. Some levees and floodwalls outside of New Orleans are owned and operated by local levee boards. All of the
Louisiana needs continuing reports on what happened to New Orleans during the Katrina storm for many reasons. So does everyone else in the country, experts agree, because disasters can happen many places; and people need to prepare. That's true especially when error can create tragedies of great magnitude. Neglected construction might not get keen interest but if that causes lives to be lost as in the case of New Orleans levees and a bridge in Minnesota, then where else might government bungling and poor engineering be found?
Engineering documents aren't thrilling reading material. They aren't page turners surely, but put them together as a chronicle of disaster; and you are likely to want to keep reading. Like the film Earthquake that dramatized the need for safe buildings in earthquakes, safe levees make interesting reflections, especially if you live in a town where they matter. Like New Orleans in hurricane season.
Shoddy, haphazard workmanship, soil too loose to hold the underpinnings, construction delays that lasted years, added to hit-or-miss inspections by engineers set the foundation for the levees to breach and flood New Orleans. Had the breaches not occurred the city would have been spared much of its agony. What were the specifics of the failure?
The causes of the levee failures are multiple and interrelated. Congressional delays, funding that came on a project to project basis at yearly intervals made completion of the levee protection critical for a Category 5 storm planned after Betsy in 1965 delayed to 2015. Less than adequate funding from Congress meant hiring engineers at the lower quartile of University training to build and maintain the levees. It also meant cheap materials. Why was the United States government not prepared urgently, knowing the risks of storms and the value of New Orleans as a port city? For if that town was truly beloved and considered vital to the economy of the nation, why then would the government not bring its best and brightest to ensure its protection? That was part, but not all, of the problem. And why would they not find out the levee status to ensure that people were safe? Is it any wonder that some people thought the storm wouldn't cause the damage that it did it when the levees were backed by the full force and faith of the Corps of Engineers and the United States government that funded them?
The Corps of Engineers has the responsibility of constructing and maintaining levees through cooperation and coordination with a series of levee boards in New Orleans. The politics we'll leave for later, but the levee construction and safety standards did not meet the needs of the storm. Katrina had been cited as a Category 5 storm in its traverse of the Gulf, but its predominant hit was a 3. Levees reported to be safe for a storm of that magnitude turned out to be inadequate. That failure and the delays over the years in completing construction to meet Category 5 storm standards made the difference between people surviving the storm and homes and lives being lost.
Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina was the worst of the 2005 hurricane season, hitting New Orleans the hardest. Katrina was also one of the top five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history
Photo by FirstBaptistNashville
That information about the storm's criteria and level of magnitude is important in recognizing the obligations of the Corps of Engineers. According to their own documents a “standard project hurricane approximately equals a fast-moving category 3 hurricane” according to agreements made between the Corps and four New Orleans leveel districts. They are also, as stated, the authority for repair and rehabilitation of flood control projects.
Among the official reports of the Corps of Engineers was that the levees were over topped and consequently flooding took place. The awful truth found out by independent investigation is that the levees failed, breaching before the over topping; and happened because they were flimsily built and not properly maintained. And finally it happened because those folks in high places didn't appropriate enough money nor keep their attention focused enough on the seriousness of a potential disaster to prevent it with money to make the levees safe. The Corps in 2008 declared its interest in doing better while one insider interviewer observer consultant underlined that the Corps engineers on the ground were less to blame than the machinations of government, inadequate money and materials.
The levees failed with a total of 50 breaches, three main ones at key junctures around the city. Had these failures not occurred the massive flooding would not have happened. Most Americans remember the rains, the swamped streets and the over topping of the levees. What they don't know is that the massive structures were not just of insufficient height but incomplete and poorly made. The goal of construction, as a result, was to do the work in ways to save money rather than putting the saving of lives first.
Levee maintenance was the ultimate responsibility of the national government with levee boards. In 1946 Congress authorized the first project to address problems that could be caused by the flooding from hurricanes. It was then that the USACE was directed to design a hurricane protection system for what has been quoted by ASCE as one for “the most severe combination of meteorological
conditions that are considered ‘reasonably characteristic’ of the region.”
Disaster preparation was the responsibility at every level. Rescue was the moral opportunity for people in high places. All that led to disaster of epic proportions and people who will live lifetimes grieving.
Would people have remained knowing the levees would breach? Likely no. Wouldn't most people consider the city safe from levee failure when ultimate authorities never declared otherwise? If there was concern that the levees would break through, shouldn't there have been better preparation and notice?
Hurricane Katrina
A few months after Katrina, NOLA. Note the water line on the house.
Photo by japetto
As one brave scientist, Ivor Van Herdeen, a disaster prevention specialist, stated, “People went to bed in the dark thinking they were okay.” Something terrible happened to the levees, and no one had told the people. According to this same specialist, 88% of the flooding in Orleans metro was due to London and 17th Avenue breaches of the levees. Those breaches weren't known about until it was too late.
The facts are that there were massive breaches facing New Orleans east where great damage occurred and many lives lost. They were breached 1 ½ hours before topping. Video tapes of situations like that didn't make it into the government's official report, however. The front sides of the levees had been eroded, not the back sides that would have reflected over topping, another part of the evidence that demonstrated where the initial damage had come. The first levee breaches occurred at 3 a.m., some report, while a principle breach in New Orleans occurred at 6:30 a.m. on August 29, but went unreported by key authorities until the following day.
An example of ignorance, or lack of focus, disorganization, poor communication or just plain foolishness came when David Vitter, Senator from Louisiana, was quoted by Van Heerden as saying on Tuesday as the storm dissipated from the Gulf and the massive flooding continued as a result of the levee breaches, “In the metro area in general, in the huge majority of areas, it's not rising at all—I don't want to alarm anyone that New Orleans is filling up like a bowl.” He said this even as the water continued to rise. It wasn't until Tuesday afternoon that what has been called a horror was known, hours after the breaches had occurred.
The American Society of Civil Engineers conducted an in-depth review of the work of the Corps of Engineers. What they found is that the engineering design didn't account for the variability of soil in the area and the levees that weren't armored properly and protected from erosion. They weren't designed for the severity of the storm and were built too low than the intended designs. All of this, according to the ASCE, alludes to ethical violations considering the code for engineers that declares, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the people.” If that is the ethics code, one must wonder why the engineers didn't worry enough about the levees, ask questions about inspections or be concerned enough about the process and progress enough to demand themselves better coordination and repair and make that publicly known.
Reports declare as well that the pumping stations failed because they weren't accessible because the hurricane protection systems had failed. Water came through swiftly at the rate of 1 foot every 10 minutes. Reviewers found that less than half of the estimated $10 billion losses in both residential and non residential capital could have been avoided had the levees not failed and the pumps been able to work.
Hurricane Katrina
Water covers Water Street with the CSX Railroad building in the background in downtown Mobile, Ala., as Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast
Photo by au_tiger01
Within the engineering community itself the debate has raged, although there is agreement among the independent review boards that the levees breaching caused the greatest damage. The issues examined within the engineering community is reflected in comments made by Dr. Seed, who headed up one of those independent groups, the National Science Fundation. He wrote a 42-page letter to ASCE in October 27 that the organization was in collusion with the Army Corps of Engineers to cover up certain of the engineering flaws and that more emphasis should have been placed on those flaws as opposed to the specific ravages of Katrina. He further declared that access to data on some of the levee sites was also obstructed by both groups.
The city needs to be safe, experts declare, with good engineering principles critical and government support and enough funding an important focus, especially with the impending storm season. Or the government and engineers must declare that they are unable to protect people and demand that they move away. But the promises not kept and poor levee design and maintenance means a state of never knowing and uncertainty that keeps the city anxious always and the nation walking away without interest.
August 29, 2005 and Hurricane Katrina hits Buras, Louisiana at a Category 3, downgraded from a Category 4 before it reached land. From that moment New Orleans started its near-fatal descent from bullets piercing through the armor of the levees that were like plastic sheets against assault rifles.
It landed on Monday with the eye of the hurricane 70 miles southeast of New Orleans, creating storm surges along the coastline and destroying nearly every structure in lower Plaquemanines Parish.
On Saturday people had been strongly advised to leave New Orleans. People began pouring out of the city in great numbers, except the poor, the disadvantaged and the elderly in great numbers who had no means of transportation to leave. Estimates prior to the flood put the percentage of poor at 27.9% and 11.7% age 65 or older. These were the people with little recourse to get out of the city.
During the following days the floods ravaged the city as the social structure broke down, people died abandoned, and makeshift shelters from the Superdome to old hotels filled to capacity inadequate for the people. The country watched in horror and disbelief during those several days.
Other tragedies have occurred since Hurricane Katrina, and people moved on to other issues. But the hurricane remains contemporary. That's because there is a new administration in the White House now and the hope for an 8/29 review by is keen. . Review of the facts and sources reveal that the organization's demands are more than cries of those making excuses and not taking responsibility themselves. declare theirs is a warning to others that not obtaining accountability and plans for protection might mean more suffer later in other disasters, not just in New Orleans.
Has everyone forgotten? Certainly not, the compassionate few continue to go to New Orleans. Spring vacation brought college students in to help the city rebuild.
There are numerous magazines, newspaper articles, books and government documents related to Hurricane Katrina. The key to assessing all of these, were one to have unlimited time to do so, is what can we learn and what will the future bring.
But as we move on from the background of levee failure, it's important to explore those agencies and departments within the government who were ultimately responsible for ensuring that engineers and others did their jobs. Where the buck stops becomes the next part of this series.
Additional References Used for This Report
1. Conversations with people in Natchitoches, Louisiana on Hurricane Katrina and aftermath, 2005 - 2009
2.Interview with Ivor Van Heerden, co-founder and director of the LSU Hurricane Center during Hurricane Katrina and Director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Louisiana State University.
3.Interview with Dr. Ray Seed, Professor, Civil Engineering, Leader of National Science Foundation Team investigation on Hurricane Katrina
4.Interviews, conversations and emails with Sandy Rosenthal, Chairperson,
5.Conversations with New Orleans residents, ordinary citizens, and Red Cross personnel both during the days before and after Hurricane Katrina to 2009
6. Grunwald, Michael, “Hurricane Katrina Two Years Later, The Threatening Storm, Time Magazine,,28804,1646611_1646683_1648904,00.html
7.GAO U.S. Government Accountability Office, September 28, 2005, “Hurricane Katrina: Providing Oversight of the Nation's Preparedness, Response and Recovery Activities
8.GAO, U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 8, 2006, “Hurricane Katrina: GAO's Preliminary Observations Regarding Preparedness, Response and Recovery
9.GAO U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Hurricane Protection: Statutory and Regulatory Framework for Levee Maintenance and Emergency Response for the Lake Pontchartrain Project
10.IPET Risk and Reliability Report, US Army Corps of Engineers
11.ASCE's External Review Panel, “Comments on the Draft Final Report of the Interagency Performance Task Force, November 29, 2006
12.ASCE's External Review Panel, “Engineers Issue Call to Action for Protecting New Orleans and the Nation,” August 25, 2006
13.ASCE's, “The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System: What Went Wrong and Why,” 2007
14. Resources obtained at website
15.Heerden, Ivor Van, The Storm, Viking Penguin, 2006
16.Brinkley, Douglas, The Great Deluge, Harper Collins, 2006
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