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Report: study entire levee system, not just breaches

03:31 PM CST on Saturday, February 25, 2006

Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. — The federal investigation of what went wrong with New Orleans levees during Hurricane Katrina should study the entire system, not just the breaks that flooded the city, a new report says.

"While a few places failed, that doesn't mean other places won't fail in the future," said Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology and chairman of the committee which put together the report for the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council.

Sections of levee close to failing might have remained intact because another section failed first and relieved the pressure, Clough said. In addition, by rebuilding the damaged and broken areas to make them stronger and more stable, the Corps might make breaks more likely in other spots.

That's why the "big picture" approach is important, Clough said.

The recommendation is one of 12 in the report by the committee, charged to review the investigation by a task force appointed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review its performance.

Ed Link, project director for the Corps-appointed Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, agreed with Clough. "It's important to understand how the entire system performed and how it will perform in the future," he said.

Currently, it is using a computer model to simulate 1,300 hurricane systems and see where storm surges develop, Link said.

In the committee's initial 12-page report, the group outlines areas of study that should be better defined while recognizing the amount of work to be done in a very short period of time.

The corps-organized task force is scheduled to have its report on levee failure completed by June 1.

"This is a big project," Clough said. "All of America is wondering what is going to happen."

Because of the short time, Clough and the academies' report points out that the task force should be careful about time management.

For example, instead of doing some of the complicated and time-consuming tests on levee soil samples, it might be better to collect a broader range of samples, he said.

Link said more soil samples and field work are being done, but there's a time limit to how much can be collected. He added that the soil lab tests add valuable information.

The report also says that IPET has 10 teams working on different parts of the levee failure study.

Someone needs to step back and examine how all of those different reports will be integrated into one final report, Clough said.

"Who is going to do that and when are they going to do that?" he said.

The report also recommends that the task force use maps to help communicate their final recommendations to the public and others. Some issues are just too complicated to be explained with the written word, he said.

In the meantime, the task force has already started to incorporate the academies' recommendations into its work, Clough and Link said.