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press clipping
Katrina report blames human errors
Poor levees, policies cited by investigators
Monday, May 22, 2006
By Sheila Grissett East Jefferson bureau

Hurricane Katrina wouldn't have breached the region's hurricane protection system had it been properly financed, designed, built and maintained, say a group of forensic scientists who are calling for strict new federal levee safety standards and an end to "dysfunctional" local government interference they say also hampers flood protection. Advertisement

"People didn't die here because levees were overtopped," said Independent Levee Investigation Team leader Ray Seed, a geotechnical engineer at the University of California-Berkeley. "People died because mistakes were made and because safety was exchanged for efficiency and reduced costs.

"New Orleans flooded not so much because there was a hurricane, but because of human error, poor decisions and judgments, and failed policies," said Seed, who traveled with other team members to New Orleans over the weekend to release their 500-page "draft final" report into what they say is the costliest catastrophic failure of an engineered system in history. Current damages are on the order of $100 billion to $150 billion -- and rising.

Floodwalls failed because they weren't built safe enough to begin with, and some levees washed away, not because they were first overpowered by a storm surge -- as preliminary findings by the Army Corps of Engineers suggest -- but because they were improperly built of sandy soils that the furious storm surge ate through before overtopping occurred, according to the report.

Katrina did, for example, overwhelm the eastern side of the levee system with storm surge and wave action that exceeded the design levels in that area -- but it was not vastly greater.

Instead, investigators said that "the carnage that resulted owed much to the inadequacies of the system" -- in this spot, the use of bad soils -- and, in other locations, delinquent federal financing that rendered parts of the system unfinished and impotent.

"These catastrophic failures did not have to occur, and they should never be allowed to occur again," said Seed, who leads a 40-member team whose work is financed by the UC-Berkeley and the National Science Foundation.

Its members include scientists who focus on the mechanics of failure and have worked other high-profile disasters, including the space shuttle Columbia disaster, the crash of the Concorde jet, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the recent Asian tsunami.

Topping the group's list of recommended changes is a complete overhaul and modernization of the corps and the creation of a National Flood Defense Authority to oversee levee projects from design to construction, not only to ensure strict safety standards and oversight of the corps' work, but also to focus on getting proper levels of federal dollars, helping unify a fractured, multijurisdictional system.

"This unacceptable performance can in many cases be traced to engineering lapses, poor judgments and efforts to reduce costs at the expense of system reliability," the report said.

But investigators didn't stop with criticism of the corps, which Seed and others say went through a cultural change about the time that "superior" post-World War II engineers began retiring and, during the same general period, Congress began to streamline the agency.

"A culture of safety was replaced with a culture of efficiency," Seed said.

The groups also fingered successive incarnations of Congress and presidential administrations for failing to properly finance the system. Decades after the local hurricane protection system was authorized, parts of it still aren't finished -- and Katrina washed some of them away because they weren't complete.

On the local level, the report assigned blame to the Orleans Levee District and the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board for stopping the corps' plan to build surge-protective floodgates in the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue and London Avenue canals: gates now being built under emergency circumstances because Katrina breached levee walls at two of those canals. It cited that episode as an example of "dysfunctional interaction" on the local level that hamstrung the corps' efforts to build proper protection. And in still other cases, the corps wasn't able to buy sufficient land -- often high-priced residential property in neighborhoods abutting the canals in New Orleans, Metairie and Kenner -- to build the big earthen levees that provide superior protection. The agency was forced instead to build floodwalls, and even then the agency didn't always have enough right of way to maintain them properly.

"Our findings indicate that no one group or organization had a monopoly on responsibility for the catastrophic failure of this regional flood protection system," it said. "Many groups, organizations and even individuals had a hand in the numerous failures and shortcomings that proved so catastrophic on Aug. 29," the report said.

"It is a complex situation without simple answers (but) it is not without answers and potential solutions -- just not simple ones," the report said, calling for a change in the process by which the flood protection system is created and maintained.

"It will not be feasible to provide an assured level of protection for this large metropolitan region without first making significant changes in the organizational structure and interactions of the national and local governmental bodies and agencies jointly responsible for this effort."

Some of the recommendations will likely trigger drawn-out debates and require congressional action and state legislation, and lawmaking isn't known for its swiftness.

More immediately, people in southeast Louisiana are worried about the storm-weakened system just getting through the next hurricane season, which starts June 1.

On that score, Seed gave the corps high marks for the more than $750 million worth of emergency interim repairs it is making, including rebuilt levees and floodgates to protect the canals from dangerous surges. Most of that work is to be complete by June 1, though completion of floodgates at the 17th Street and London canals is expected to take at least several more weeks.

"We think the corps has achieved a logistical miracle with their interim repairs," Seed said, praising Col. Lewis Setliff for requiring better levee-building materials and providing additional on-site technical inspectors in response to concerns from independent investigators that levees on the region's eastern flank weren't being properly rebuilt.

"And it is correct, I believe, when the corps says the system is likely to be better than it was when Katrina arrived. But the system isn't likely to be good enough, because it wasn't nearly good enough when Katrina came," Seed said.

He called it "a work in progress" and said the corps couldn't do more than is already being done to safeguard the system this year.

Seed said a more thorough review of the system is still needed -- and the report recommended many of them -- to better shape the additional upgrades that corps higher-ups and President Bush have said will be made to the system. But those can't be done in time to provide further protection this year.

"I would say that the next step to be taken at this time is to make good evacuation plans, because until those upgrades are made, storms will bring the possibility of flooding," Seed said.

On an interim basis, Seed said, the floodgates would protect floodwalls in all three canals so long as local government agencies cooperate by reducing the amount of storm water they pump into the canals.

And although the corps has not yet officially announced what those safe water levels will be, sources say no more than an additional 5 feet of water will be allowed the 17th Street and London Avenue canals.

At the Orleans Avenue Canal, which corps and independent investigators now say was a better-built canal -- and where a gap in the wall allowed water to escape during Katrina -- an additional 9 feet of water likely will be authorized.

During heavy rain, closure of the gates to keep water from rising above those safe levels could trigger collateral flooding to neighborhoods that drain into the canals.

"It's going to be a terrible test when the rain is falling and water is ponding and someone thinks, 'What would six feet of water hurt?' " Seed said.

"But it's of vital importance that everybody work together on not just this issue, but in all things to do with this system," he said. "The dysfunctional interaction of agencies down here has long been a thorn in the side."

He said it was that same "dysfunctional interaction" that defeated a recent legislative move to form one consolidated board to more holistically oversee south Louisiana levee districts.

"Even in the wake of this disaster, with so many bodies recently interred, these groups still couldn't get past their dysfunctions," Seed said.

In addition to better local-federal cooperation, the team's many recommendations would be applied throughout the United States, from implementing new engineering procedures and safety standards wherever levees are built to creating the national flood authority.

As part of that authority, states would have an equivalent organization to represent regional, local and public interests and to collaborate with the corps in developing a cohesive flood defense system.

To address only flaws in engineering and construction would not fix a broken system that has been responsible for years of piecemeal levee-building with no cohesive plan of guidance, the team said.

Still to be reconciled are the scientific differences of opinion as to what caused particular failures.

The Berkeley-led team has its findings, which differ in several instances with the preliminary findings of the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, or IPET, a corps-formed investigative body using more than a dozen teams of scientists and engineers from the corps, academia and private industry to analyze what went wrong with the system.

And those differences are more important in some cases than in others.

Of the eight major levee and floodwall breaches that flooded 85 percent of New Orleans, the Seed-led team disagrees with IPET investigators on the cause of several.

For example, IPET has said a layer of clay beneath the 17th Street Canal's east floodwall and levee is the culprit in that failure.

But Seed's team points instead to a thin layer of an organic, silty, jellylike material that ran east to west across the canal. Their investigators discovered it only a few feet below ground hiding under leaves and twigs.

"There's no engineering doubt that this was the shear surface that caused the failure," Seed said. "This is a very nasty and dangerous engineering substance hidden by leaves and twigs. If you touched it too much, it became liquid."

Team members said they don't fault original designers for not finding the stuff; technology has come a long way.

"But a major American city was destroyed, the entire world is watching, and IPET has its (analysis) wrong," Seed said. "We expected them to find it."

In the long run, the problem at that breach site would be solved the same way, regardless of where the slipping and sliding began.

But it's a different story in areas where IPET says levees failed because they were overtopped, but Seed's group says underseepage did the damage.

Those kinds of differences require vastly different solutions and beg the question of who's right and who's wrong.

To date, none the teams investigating the failures -- nor the groups checking the work of those investigators -- has issued a final report. Draft preliminary reports, such as the one released Sunday, are coming out between now and June 1 or so. The scope and complexity of work are said to be delaying all final reports until the end of June or even later.

It remains to be seen whether all the teams are on the same page by that point and, if not, what will occur next.

"There is some urgency to all this. . . . New Orleans has now been flooded six times over past century," the Seed-led team concluded. "It should not be allowed to happen again."

A town hall session will be held today from 9 a.m. to noon at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel as investigators explain their report and take questions from the public. The session will be hosted by University of California, Berkeley forensic engineers who led the 30-person team. The town hall at the Sheraton, 500 Canal St., will be held in Grand Ballroom C on the fifth floor. It is open to all public officials and concerned residents.