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Monday, May 22, 2006

Levee failure report discussed at town hall
By Sheila Grissett East Jefferson bureau

Forensic scientists investigating failures that transformed Hurricane Katrina from a nasty storm into a national tragedy — and exposed a local levee system that they say remains substandard — continued to push Monday in New Orleans and Baton Rouge for an overhaul of the nation’s levee-building system.

From the White House and Congress to local government buildings in storm-ravaged south Louisiana, the Independent Levee Investigation Team called for a sea change in standards, practices and attitudes that it says is necessary if levees in New Orleans and elsewhere are to be safe enough for people to live with.

“I myself, personally, wouldn’t purchase property and move into New Orleans if the intent of the nation, the state and the locals is to keep doing things the same way,” team leader Ray Seed, a geotechnical engineer from the University of California-Berkeley, said at a New Orleans town hall meeting Monday.

“We’ve got to dig a whole lot deeper to be safe next time. We’ve got to be 1,000 times safer than we were when Katrina arrived ... and that will take political will.” The town hall was called to give residents and elected officials a chance to ask questions about the report.

The audience was short on officials however. Only newly re-elected New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrell came in to talk with the panel.

Former Lakeview resident Lena Pantanelli spoke for many Katrina survivors when she implored the out-of-town panel for help.

“I’ve lost everything. Flood insurance wasn’t required.” the retiree told them.

“We need help badly down here. I don’t like to be a protester ... but tell us what to do. Do we go to Washington as a group? And where are our leaders? Why aren’t they here?”

Team members urged Pantanelli and others in attendance, including civic activists and neighborhood leaders, to channel their anger and anguish into the action needed to ignite to political will.

Be watchdogs, they were told.

“Don’t give up,” advised Berkley engineering professor Bob Bea.

Seed said federal regulations ensure that dams are roughly 1,000 times safer than the New Orleans levee system, even though it protects more people that most dams in the country. And they want new federal law that provides the same cloak of safety for levees.

In a report that is 500 pages long and still growing, team members blasted the Army Corps of Engineers for a flawed levee design that they say resulted in a system that cracked “unnecessarily” under Katrina’s storm surge.

And while they said work being done to repair and bolster this system by early summer should make it a safer system than it was when Katrina crumbled sections of it, the scientists said they fear that it remains a dangerous system in need of a complete overhaul.

The group, whose work is funded by Berkeley and the National Science Foundation, also took Congress and several federal administrations to task for failing to give the corps the money necessary to build good levees.

A key element in the team’s reform package calls for creation of a national authority that would play multiple roles, from overseeing flood-defense projects nationwide to stabilizing an adequate, dependable money supply.

The authority would also provide oversight of corps levee projects, as well as coordinate with new state councils the team is also recommending. The state groups would focus on projects within their borders and bring cohesion to historically segmented, turf-oriented levee-building projects.

The report alleges that Katrina wouldn’t have breached the region’s hurricane protection system had it been properly financed, designed, built and maintained. It said all breaches and levee failures could have been avoided had the federal government been willing to fund better designs that didn’t require building “too close to the edge of safety.”

Complicating efforts to design a new, safer system, the Berkeley-led team has drawn its own scientific conclusions as to the causes of eight major breaches.

In most cases, those findings differ from those of the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, or IPET, a corps-formed investigative body using a dozen teams of scientists and engineers from the corps, academia and private industry to analyze the failure and to design against a repeat.

Maj. Gen. Don Riley, director of the corps’ civil works operation, said Monday that his staffers must finish reviewing details of the new report released Sunday before they can respond with specificity.

But Riley said his own review of the report’s executive summary, coupled with remarks he heard Seed make in a lecture about a month ago, gives him a pretty good picture of the team’s focus.

“I’m confident that all the recommendations he makes that are in the corps’ control are already under way,” he said. “We’ve taken action on everything in our purview.”

The changes, which he said are being incorporated into repairs of the storm-damaged system, include more robust wall designs, increased safety factors, new scour protection behind floodwalls and armoring critical levee sections.

Riley said the experts would have to sit down together and look at each other’s work.

Riley said IPET has asked several times to see the Berkeley team’s work, but it was never handed over until this weekend when the report was also given to the media and posted on a Web site.

“We’ve asked them many times to share their analytical information, but they never did,” Riley said “It may have helped us.”

Riley said he has faith in the work being done by 150-member IPET team and being reviewed by two professional organizations.

In addition, he said the corps’ Institute of Water Resources has hired outside consultants to study the corps’ organizational structure and make recommendations for change. He said that work will also be reviewed by the National Flood and Storm Managers Association and a second independent group still to be identified.

“And we’ve told them that we’re not after the first answer but the right answer,” he said.

Riley said IPET will confer with the Berkeley group to look at any significant differences of opinion.

“And if we need to do anything differently, we will,” he said. “We won’t let anything sit out there that needs correcting. We’ll correct.”

(Sheila Grissett can be reached at or (504)-883-7058.)