Friday, March 17, 2006

Foreseeing the Unforeseen

3/10/06 headline: Corps: Floodwall break caused by unforeseen stresses.

That means the Army Corps of Engineers is off the hook.

3/14/06 headline: Floodwall failure was foreseen, team says.

That means the Army Corps of Engineers is back on the hook.

The key to learning why the 17th Street Canal floodwall failed during Hurricane Katrina may lie more in what designers didn't do than in what they could have foreseen, experts now say.
To me, that means the Army Corps of Engineers stays on the hook. (I am using “on the hook” here as the opposite of “off the hook” or “free of blame,” although I do realize that “on the hook” probably doesn’t mean “culpable,” though it should, dammit.)

I think the ACE is trying to get itself off the hook. Ed Link, program director for the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force which is investigating what went wrong with the 17th Street Canal levee and floodwalls, thinks when it comes to foreseeing or unforeseeing, the media is misconstruing his words:
"Our position on this is that, very simply, whoever did the design just did not consider this particular mechanism," said Link, a University of Maryland senior fellow who is head of the corps-sponsored Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force. "We, IPET, made no value judgment whether it should have been considered or could have been considered.

"If that was inferred by our comments, it was inaccurate."
Why would the media infer from the task force’s comments that the levee failure was caused by unforeseeable circumstances?
The executive summary of the task force report, which Link said he wrote without input from the corps, said "this failure mechanism was not anticipated by the design criteria used."

When task force panelists and corps engineers were asked if that meant the design systems used by the engineers of the day could not have foreseen this type of failure, they answered "yes."
That seems more like a clarification than an inference.

Bottom line: If the levee failure was unforeseen, then the government is not liable for the damages caused by the breach. If it was foreseen, then the government is liable. That’s an important distinction.

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