Panel: Corps shouldn't have claimed Cat 3 protection
By Bill Walsh Washington bureau
WASHINGTON - Statements by the Army Corps of Engineers that the New Orleans area was protected against the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane were "at best a rough estimate and at worst, simply inaccurate," according to a Senate committee's final report on Hurricane Katrina released Tuesday.
Noting data from the National Weather Service about the severity of storms, evidence of subsidence that left levees and floodwalls below authorized levels and gaps created by unfinished projects, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee concluded that the system was not capable of protecting against a Category 3 hurricane, such as Katrina, with winds up to 130 mph and a storm surge as high as 12 feet.
Yet, in press releases and public statements dating to 2001, the corps said that the levees and flood walls abutting Lake Pontchartrain and its canals were designed to do just that. The committee said the corps should have backed off those claims based on what it knew about the recurrence of storms, subsidence and unfinished work.
"All of these factors should have persuaded the Corps to reconsider its public claims that the Lake Pontchartrain Project provided Category 3 level protection," the committee wrote in its 750-page report, "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared."
The corps, however, denied that it ever made such promise. New Orleans District Project Manager Al Naomi said that the assurances were based on the project's design, not its actual capability. He said that because the 125 miles of levees and floodwalls had yet to be completed - because of a lack of money - the system was not up to its design standards.
"If everything was constructed and completed, that is the level of protection it would provide," Naomi said Tuesday. "That is a misunderstanding by the committee. I never said we ever had Category 3 protection in the city."
The corps usually avoids assigning a level of protection to levees based on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which rates hurricane strength from 1 to 5. The corps says that the scale is imprecise. At a hearing last month, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., tried to pin down Lt. General Carl Strock, the corps commander, on the category of storm protection offered by the latest post-Katrina levee improvements, and he demurred.
Yet, the committee's report found that in public statements and internal documents, the corps has repeatedly referred to Category 3 storm protection as the benchmark for hurricane protection in and around New Orleans.
In December 2001, a press release said that flood-proofing of two bridges in Gentilly "will protect neighborhoods along the London Avenue, Orleans Avenue and 17th Street canals from storm surges. . . . The system is designed to protect against fast-moving category 3 hurricanes." In 2003, the Corps said that St. Charles Parish drainage projects scheduled for completion in 2004, "will result in a levee system that provides protection from a Category 3 storm for St. Charles Parish."
Even Strock, speaking after the Aug. 29 storm hit, is quoted in the report as saying that the corps "knew" the levee system "would protect against a Category 3 hurricane."
The Lake Pontchartrain project, first authorized in 1965, was supposed to offer Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Charles parishes protection against a "Standard Project Hurricane," which is a model based on "the most severe combination of meteorological conditions considered reasonably characteristic" of the region.
Because that standard told people little about how safe they were, Naomi said the corps equated the Standard Project Hurricane with Category 3 hurricane protection.
"People want to know what we have," Naomi said. "You are trying to define an egg in terms of a chicken. We tried to define it in terms people could understand."
Unfortunately, the definition of Standard Project Hurricane protection changed over the years as the region was hit by severe storms. It was revised by the U.S. Weather Bureau after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and then again in 1970, 1977 and 1979. But the design standards for the Lake Pontchartrain project were never updated, the committee found.
It wasn't only the definition that was shifting. So was the ground. The committee said that because of soil subsidence, the levees and floodwalls were lower than intended. Making matters worse, parts of the project weren't finished when Katrina struck despite an original target completion date of 1978.
"In other words," the report said, "some elements of the project were not even high enough to protect against a Standard Project Hurricane, let alone a genuine Category 3."
Other evidence suggested that Category 3 protection was optimistic.
Several years ago, the National Weather Service re-evaluated its own projections of how vulnerable New Orleans was to a storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain. Wilson Shaffer, who studies storm surges at the agency, told the committee that the corps was informed "as early as 2003, but certainly by 2004" that Category 2 hurricanes would overtop the levees. The findings were shared with Louisiana emergency preparedness officials at conferences in 2004 and 2005, the committee found.
"At a minimum, this information should have prompted a fresh look at the adequacy of the Lake Pontchartrain Project," the committee wrote. "But it does not appear that either the state or the corps took any action to respond to the new information."
Naomi said that the Senate committee's conclusions ignore the realities of an ever-changing landscape in south Louisiana and the difficulty in getting financing from Congress.
With the levees constantly sinking into the marshy ground around New Orleans, the level of protection is always declining, he said. Yet, convincing Congress to provide on ongoing source of hurricane protection has proven difficult. Recognizing the problem, the Louisiana congressional delegation has for years sought a share of federal offshore oil and gas royalties to upgrade hurricane protection, but has so far been rebuffed.
"This is a moving target," Naomi said. "To nail things down to say we have Category such-and-such protection, it's always changing. I don't know whether we will ever be able to nail it down with any assurance."
Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7817