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Corps of Engineers Takes Heat on Levees

Corps of Engineers
Takes Heat on Levees

September 2, 2005; Page B2

The failure of New Orleans's famed levee system is dragging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into another political firestorm.

Two central questions will be hashed out in the months ahead: Did the Bush administration, fearing the Corps budget was being treated as congressional pork, shortchange the system in a way that contributed to the catastrophic failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina struck the city? And did a design flaw or the recent work on the system overseen by the Corps contribute to the problem?

Only last year, the Corps, a collection of military and civilian builders, was embroiled in another controversy. Critics charged that the Corps let Halliburton Co., a firm once led by Vice President Dick Cheney, improperly inflate the costs of carrying out a massive supply contract for the U.S. in Iraq.

The Army Corps is a highly political agency whose leaders are used to being second-guessed. The Corps oversees and critiques some of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects in the U.S. and abroad. "The Corps' job is to perform technical analyses and make decisions based on that," says Fred Caver, a former Corps director who oversaw projects in New Orleans but retired in June. "But politics is part of it, and it's inevitable."

The Corps moved to the center of the story of Hurricane Katrina early Tuesday morning, when it became clear that there had been a collapse of a 500-foot-long stretch of a system of levees that kept the waters of Lake Pontchartrain at bay. The collapse allowed a steady wall of water to flood New Orleans from the north, which turned catastrophic as the city center filled with water more than 20 feet deep in some areas.

The location of the breach, very close to a pair of just-completed levee construction projects overseen by the Corps, has prompted some private engineers familiar with the construction to wonder if work in the area may somehow have contributed to the levee's failure. These same engineers wonder further if a portion of the levee that failed was constructed using a cheaper and less-sturdy design technique.

At the same time, the speculation has led to questions about whether the Corps got the money it needed to maintain and upgrade the levee over time. In periods such as the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, spending taxpayer money to improve levees and pumps was widely considered a smart investment. But as the memory of catastrophes fades, "people stop seeing the return on it," Mr. Caver says. Politicians quit pushing for projects that don't offer an immediate benefit to constituents, and gaps in the system go unfixed.

In New Orleans, a case in point is the so-called eastern New Orleans back levee, a barrier designed to stop a tidal surge blowing off a hurricane approaching from the east, as Katrina did. Both local and Corps officials have long known the levee was three feet too short and incapable of stopping more than a modest storm surge. Since 2001, Louisiana's congressional delegation, with the Corps' support, pushed for the estimated $5 million project. But the Bush administration never earmarked enough money to start the project.

The Corps chief engineer for the levee system, Al Naomi, says that, while he supported a plan to lift the levee, he doesn't believe it created the disaster. "That's not what caused the flooding," he said.

Even so, bankrolling the project may receive more attention in the future: Katrina's storm surge easily topped the back levee, perhaps contributing to the flooding of about 40,000 homes.

It isn't the only Louisiana flood-control project the Bush administration viewed as unnecessary. This year, for the budget that hasn't yet been finalized, Louisiana's congressional delegation requested $82.5 million for area flood-control projects. The Bush administration countered with a $13.5 million proposal. The administration rejects criticism of such moves, noting that its overall budget for Corps-directed projects has remained steady -- $4.7 billion in fiscal 2001, compared with a proposed $4.3 billion in 2006.

Critics have charged that the latest budgets have been used to house increased expenses from the Iraq war. But Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, chief of engineers for the Corps, rejected that assertion. "I do not see that to be the case," he told reporters yesterday.

Gen. Strock and Mr. Naomi also rejected the idea that recent construction near the levee breach contributed to its failure. The breach occurred near a recently constructed bridge about a quarter-mile away and an upgraded flood pump about a half-mile in the other direction. Two engineers familiar with the projects said it is unclear -- though possible -- that the construction played a role.

Corps officials said Congress never directed them to prepare for a storm as strong as Katrina. "Unfortunately, that event has occurred in this case," Gen. Strock said.

But some familiar with the budgeting process say tight budgets sometimes compel the Corps to pull back in its projects. One case, says a private engineer familiar with the Corps work in New Orleans, may be the 17th Street Canal, where the levee breech is located. The section that failed, he said, is likely to have been constructed using a so-called I-wall design, in which a sheet of steel is driven into the ground, backed by pilings and topped with a line of concrete. The design is sturdier than an earthen levee but less solid than a T-wall design, which has both a vertical and a horizontal wall.

Mr. Naomi said an I-wall section of the levee did indeed fail, and he agreed that a T-wall design probably wouldn't have. But the project was built according to a plan that didn't foresee a hurricane the size of Katrina. "We could have had $100 million and wouldn't have done it any differently," Mr. Naomi said. "As far as we were concerned, that project was finished."

Still, at about $1,700 a running foot, the I-wall is much cheaper than the $4,000 cost of the T-wall. "It's expensive," the private engineer said. "Of course, it doesn't look so expensive now."

Write to Christopher Cooper at 9 and Gary Fields at 10
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