Thursday, December 01, 2005

Grab your pitchfork

Alright, it's time. I've been recommending that critics keep their powder dry before going off half-cocked and shooting down the Corps of Engineers. I just think that we're not going to solve the levee problem unless we assign blame where it's due. Previously, I've argued that the Corps' principal fault may have been failure to oversee construction and maintenance of levees and floodwalls, but I've been willing to hold judgment on Corps' engineering or construction activities. Today's Times-Picayune, however, made a better case for engineering deficiencies which the Corps should have discovered long ago.

In previous posts, I've cited articles pointing to other agencies involved in the levee system failures -- the Sewerage and Water Board in particular, for being the last agency to touch the 17th Street Canal, possibly even pulling out the sheetpiling. There hasn't been much more information about the Sewerage and Water Board's involvement.

The Orleans Parish Levee Board. What can I say? Those guys better not show their faces anywhere near New Orleans. What looks like a massive State Senate investigation of the Board is now underway.

I'm ready now to point accusing fingers at the Corps. An independent group of engineers, who call themselves "Team Louisiana," found that the original engineering plans for the 17th Street Canal called for sheetpiling to be driven down into the levee to a depth of 17 feet. They were actually driven down to just 10 feet. Notwithstanding that foible major blunder, the forensic team of engineers concluded that the sheetpiling should have been driven much farther down than 17 feet.

Computer models can be run to calculate the depth required based on soil strength and canal water depth. Since the canal was 18 feet deep, the engineering plans for a 17 foot depth would still have allowed water seepage underneath the sheetpiling -- that should have been obvious to everyone at the Corps who knows anything about the levees, and it should have been considered in levee inspections (if they weren't so busy making lunch plans).

The rule of thumb, said the Team Louisiana engineers, is that sheetpiling should be driven down two to three times the depth of the water (at least 36 feet). Those engineering plans were drawn by Eustis Engineering. Whether intended or not, Eustis gets a little gris gris spell and a tarring and feathering for creating such a mess, as does their partner firm, Modjeski and Masters.

That miscalculation was so obvious and fundamental, investigators said, they "could not fathom" how the design team of engineers from the corps, local firm Eustis Engineering and the national firm Modjeski and Masters could have missed what is being termed the costliest engineering mistake in American history.

Someone at the Corps approved the shoddy engineering plans. I wouldn't want to be any one of those engineers -- Corps, Eustis, or M&M -- who were involved in the project, but someone somewhere knows the secret that would unravel the mystery of how such a basic engineering mistake happened.


I forgot to make the comment that, while we may find fault with the Corps, we should not cut off the nose to spite the face. The Corps performs a vital function in protecting wetlands of Louisiana through the Clean Water Act. It's mission to both develop navigable waterways and protect wetlands is, indeed, a very difficult one for the Corps to figure out, often succumbing to political pressures that bear down on the better scientific judgments of Corps engineers and environmentalists. Nevertheless, unless we want to talk about defining better rules for how the Corps protects wetlands, or assign the responsibility to another agency, the Corps is all we have.

In past years, political pressures (internal to the Corps and external) have played an important role in how much money was allocated for wetlands conservation, and how exacting Corps personnel could be in enforcing the law. I can fully imagine the possibility that criticism of the Corps could result in less money budgeted for wetlands conservation, and pressure to relax the rules to allow wetlands to be further destroyed. Note that Senator David Vitter has befriended important friends in the logging industry who would very much like to clearcut cypress forests -- not for beautiful and rot resistant timbers, but for plain old mulch to beautify yards and gardens. Just do a search in PGR for "Vitter" to read a number of posts on that topic.


At 12/01/2005 06:20:00 AM, Blogger Maverick said...

FYI, From the LRA on Tuesday:

"Powell reiterated President Bush's commitment to rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

"Chairman Powell emphasized his agreement with and support of the LRA's number one federal priority - creating safety through improved hurricane protection levees and coastal restoration projects. He pledged to work with the LRA and other federal, state and local partners on developing a master plan that can be implemented in the coming months and years," stated Kopplin."

At 12/01/2005 10:37:00 AM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Hmmm ... I don't doubt that he (and Bush) might come around eventually, but it is a time-critical issue. It needs to be resolved immediately so that people can make decisions about whether to stay, rebuild, or go somewhere else.

It's not like this is an impossible task. The money is there. The United States has a $2 trillion budget. They just need to say they're going to do it. It's simple really.


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