Saturday, November 19, 2005

Crony politics and the Corps

Another ground sonar investigation revealed that sheet piling depths at the London Avenue Canal levee wall break were 16 feet shorter than the Corps of Engineers said it was. The sheet piling was resting on top of loose sand under soft marsh material - not exactly what you'd want with millions of pounds of pressure pushing against flood walls.

Last week, another team discovered that sheet piling at the levee wall break on the 17th Street Canal was 7 feet shorter than the Corps said it was.

I am not ready to swing completely over to the defense of the Corps of Engineers, however, (fair disclosure) I know a lot of people who work in the New Orleans District office. One of those people took offense - was actually fighting mad - at the insinuations being made that the Corps hasn't been doing it's job.

Every organization has its weaknesses - the Corps' weaknesses are caused by leadership, not by its staff, the vast majority of whom are dedicated and serious about their jobs. The engineers and scientists are what they are - engineers and scientists. They're not interested in politics. They just make recommendations which are then introduced into a political process - and that's where things go awry - local crony politics mingling with federal tax-cutting trends.

Last week's article on the 17th Street Canal investigation seemed to point a finger at the Corps' responsibility for the flood wall break, reserving for the next to last paragraph a bit of information which revealed that the Sewerage and Water Board worked on the levees there, and replaced the sheet piling originally installed by the Corps. Now there's the story! Why didn't the Times-Picayune start there.

Then, an astonishing discovery, residents whose back yards butt up against the 17th Street Canal reported flooding in their yards as recently as a year ago to the Sewerage and Water Board. S&WB workers never reported the leaks to the Orleans Parish Levee Board, nor to the Corps of Engineers.

The paper resurrected the issue again with a Friday article that got the story right for the most part (my emphasis):

"The reality is that the corps often gets politicked into taking these things on.

Bea said the practice of accepting previous work without further scrutiny has become a common practice at the corps only in recent years. Previously, the corps did all designs, soil investigations and other engineering work in-house.

"Today, due to what we would call downsizing and out-sourcing, that capability does not exist any longer inside the corps," Bea said. "So now they have to use an outside contractor for this work.

"I think the question to ask is, 'What are the savings involved in accepting those risks for projects that are so important?'"

The Corps of Engineers has had a Category 5 levee plan for New Orleans collecting dust for 30 years. The problem for the Corps, as is almost always the case, is that politics gets in the way of good science.

The Corps of Engineers has a difficult mission - to both maintain and develop navigable waterways, and to protect wetlands. It's an irreconciliable mission in an area like Louisiana where coastal marshes have been developed to death. Enter politics into the mix, and the Corps can become incapacitated in executing its mission on either front.

Priorities that are unseen to the general public can, for example, affect how diligently the Corps pursues wetland protection.

The Corps of Engineers should be sheltered from the political process. The recommendations of its scientists and engineers are ignored, as we now know, with dramatically perilous consequences.

Every administration has tried to influence the Corps' mission throughout history, as have local politicians, but the Bush administration has been particularly deleterious to the Corps executing its mission in a scientific and objective way.

(Hat tip Mrs. Schroeder and Miss J)


At 11/26/2005 08:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are willing to defend the Coprs who flat lied to everyone about the length of the sheet piles?

The people who designed a flood wall so poorly it could not stand up under its own weight and kept being sued by contractors who had to spend millions of extra dollars just to get the walls to stand upright --without the water pressure!

You'll defend the people who IGNORED soil samples saying there was nothing but peat where they put the pilings?

Please for the love of God... If you want to help New Orleans, leave. It is people like you who keep us down.

My biggest complaint after coming home is that Katrina didn't wash the stupids away.

We're still stuck on stupid.

At 11/27/2005 05:48:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Be careful how you assign blame. The Corps should be held responsible for its failure of oversight, however, the Corps can't be blamed for what it didn't know. All I'm saying here is that all the facts aren't on the table. It looks like the SWB was the last to touch the levees, and the soil samples may have been done by a contractor because a political decision was made at some point to eliminate soil scientists.

I beg to differ. It's people who prefer to remain ignorant who keep us down. I want to blame somebody as much as the rest, but I choose to reserve my fire on this one until all the facts are in.

You can't fix a problem if you don't know what the problem is ... or if you end up fixing the wrong problem because you chose not to research the issue.


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