Saturday, July 08, 2006

“I think the Colonel is a bit optimistic.”

So says Baton Rouge engineer Gordon Boutwell of the American Society of Civil Engineers at a U.S. House subcommittee briefing on the levees.

The optimistic colonel is Col. Richard Wagenaar of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:
“I would build back now,” he [Col. Wagenaar] said. “I think the protection system that is in place now – especially along the canals to protect against surge – is better than it was pre-Katrina.”
Which leads to my biggest problem with the USACE: Objectives vs. Results. The USACE calls their work a success when they achieve their desired objectives. We who live in the real world call their work a success when they achieve the desired results.

The USACE has set their immediate objective (pdf) to rebuild the levee system to pre-Katrina strength or better. (Before I go on, can we all agree that pre-Katrina strength is not a good benchmark?) Compare that to the results we would all like to see: protection that keeps us safe from a major hurricane.

So what do we have *now*?
Col. Richard Wagenaar, commander of the New Orleans District office of the corps, insisted the repairs already completed would be sufficient to protect New Orleans from most storms.
What *will* we have?
Earlier, he outlined additional improvements already under way that would protect the area from the newly estimated effects of the largest storm expected to hit the city once every 100 years.
Today, we are protected from “most storms” and four or five years from now we will be protected from “the largest storm expected to hit the city.” How they know the largest storm to expect is something truly worthy of the powers of Marie Laveau. They are basically gambling that a really big, unexpected hurricane won’t hit here.

Back to the pre-Katrina protection. The levees and floodwalls that failed didn’t necessarily fail at the height of Katrina’s strength. So, at what strength did they fail? At the mid-category 3 level? Weak category 3? Strong category 2? Mid-category 2? Weak category 2? For the New Orleans area, what is pre-Katrina strength?

When the USACE says we are better off now than before Katrina, I don’t really feel any better. I’m not the only one(previous T-P article):
Without armoring of earthen levees and the completion of unfinished parts of the levee system, the repairs don't provide protection from more than a strong Category 2 storm, added Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and leader of Team Louisiana, a group of scientists and engineers reviewing the levee system for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

"A Category 3 storm will still flood the West Bank and New Orleans," van Heerden said.
I understand that van Heerden’s credibility has been questioned. But, he can be the under bet if we accept the USACE as the over bet. Since I’m closer to the better-safe-than-sorry end of the spectrum, I’ll take the under.

Some might say that we can only know if the desired results are achieved when the levee system is tested. I would say that an army of engineers, if not the Army Corps of Engineers, has a bunch of equations saying otherwise. It can be done. We can protect this area from a major hurricane. It just needs to be made an objective by the U.S. government.

As a side note, the USACE apparently can’t even meet the objectives they have set:
Corps misses second deadline

The new floodgates and pumps in the 17th Street Canal won't be functional by Sunday as the Army Corps of Engineers had predicted, and the corps says it can't set a new target date until key players in the project weigh in next week on the agency's latest plan to increase drainage capacity at the site.


Sophmom said...

I have to admint that I worry (that being a big part of a Mom's job and my son is there). I worry about the pb&j sandwich down in the ground at the 17th street canal. I worry about the western side of that levee that held only because the eastern side failed, relieving the pressure. Now I worry about all those leaking pipes underground and sometimes picture the whole place collapsing into the muck. Mostly I worry that we don't hear the truth, that everything we've been told about what this country stands for is a lie... ah, hell, it's too much! *sigh*

Good post, though. :)

Tim said...

People are always asking engineers, "Can you do this?" The standard answer is "Yes! All it takes is time and money."

The hurricane protection system throughout the greater New Orleans area was severely damaged, so getting it back to "pre-Katrina" levels was a heck of a feat in just 9 months.

Sadly, you're absolutely right that what we had before Katrina was not good enough, and yet we are now supposed to be comforted that we're back where we started. Better than nothing, sure, but not much better.

The ball is now in Washington's court. The Corps can only construct projects that are authorized and funded by Congress and the President. As of today, no improvements to the system have been approved other than closing the three outfall canals with temporary gates.

Dr. Boutwell is a respected geotechnical engineer, which means he's a soils guy. What he knows is that the parts of the hurricane protection system of which Col. Waganaar is so proud (as he should be) represent only a small part of the total system of levees, walls and gates around the city.

For instance, that new wall on the Industrial Canal is probably the strongest wall in the state--might even be nuclear bomb proof. But it's only 4,000 feet long. If we get another massive storm surge like the one brought by Katrina, water will just flow around it!

Washington needs to send the money. As for time, just as it will take years to haul off all the debris and rebuild thousands of homes and businesses, it will also take years to inspect and repair or design and build a significant hurricane protection system.

Time and money--both in short supply from where we sit this hurricane season.



Patrick Armstrong said...

"We can protect this area from a major hurricane. It just needs to be made an objective by the U.S. government."

Exactly, it is quite embarassing that the nation that brought you the Panama Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the New York City Subway System can't get its act together in New Orleans.

It is a national issue.

The one good thing getting the levees back to pre-Katrina levels so quickly is that you can still keep the disaster in the public eye and demand better engineering.

Because Americans shouldn't settle for 'it's good enough.'