Marlyville / Fontainebleau / Broadmoor Preservation
post-Katrina and beyond...



pictures work stories press how to news


press clipping

Complete corps final report

The Army Corps of Engineers has made available the Final Report of the Interagency Performance Evaluation Taskforce (IPET). The report is provided in nine volumes:

Volume I. Executive Summary and Introduction
Volume II. Geodetic Vertical and Water Level Datum
Volume III. The Hurricane Protection System
Volume IV. The Storm
Volume V. The Performance - Levees and Floodwalls
Volume VI. The Performance - Interior Drainage and Pumping
Volume VII. The Consequences
Volume VIII. Engineering and Operational Risk and Reliability Analysis
Volume IX. General Appendices


Levee design, building system failed on many levels, report says

By Bob Marshall,
Sheila Grissett
and Mark Schleifstein
Staff writers

The hurricane protection system that supposedly shielded 1.3 million New Orleans area residents before Hurricane Katrina was “a system in name only,” incomplete and inconsistent in its levels of safety, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-sponsored panel concluded Thursday.

Nearing the end of an eight-month study, the corps’ Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force concluded that each of the many levee, floodwall and pumping failures that occurred during Katrina has its roots in the inadequate process that the United States uses to address flood control projects through the corps.

The draft final report, commissioned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld soon after Katrina, is the result of a $20 million investigation into what has become the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

“We say this was a system failure in that the system designed to protect New Orleans failed on many levels, but it also shows how the system — the business model — we use to build these things is so flawed,” said Ed Link, the University of Maryland professor who headed the task force. “The way we determine need, assess risk and go about funding and approving these things is based on a model that might have been appropriate for the way we lived 50 years ago, but is sorely outdated today.”
Link said Congress requires the corps to use an “American business model” that doesn’t measure the cost of failure in human lives and doesn’t free the corps quickly to adjust designs to changing environmental conditions. Those flaws proved catastrophic to New Orleans, a 288-year-old city built on a steadily sinking landscape repeatedly challenged by hurricanes.

“The system was authorized in 1965 and still wasn’t finished when Katrina hit 40 years later,” Link said. “It was funded in a piece-meal basis, and it was built in a piece-meal way. And even as subsidence caused changes in elevations — changes people were aware of — nothing was done. “This is not to offer excuses for any mistakes (in engineering or design) that were made. But it makes it almost impossible for the corps to adapt to problems when they occur.”

Link warned that post-Katrina repairs have strengthened the parts of the levee system that failed. But he said that until undamaged parts of the system are improved, “the New Orleans metropolitan area remains vulnerable to any storm creating surge and wave conditions similar to those of Katrina.”

The task force is composed of 150 people drawn from government agencies, universities and private industry and works under the aegis of the Corps of Engineers itself, making its criticism all the more striking. Other review panels have been convened by the state of Louisiana, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Engineers.

Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley engineering professor that’s part of a team underwritten by the National Science Foundation, gave generally high marks to the task force report. He said it’s important that the task force acknowledged the important role of U.S. flood control policy in creating conditions that led to the disaster.

But he also had problems with parts of the report.

“What pops out at me are cases where they don’t really come to grips with responsibility, such as when they say the storm exceeded design criteria — but they don’t mention what criteria was wrong,” Bea said.

The executive summary of the task force’s 6,615-page report declares the group found “no evidence of government or contractor negligence or malfeasance.” Bea took exception to the statement.

“That just jumps out of nowhere, and yet they don’t explain how they looked for that evidence,” he said. “If you don’t consider ignoring changes in elevation datum and (storm) criteria as negligence, what do you consider negligence?

“And if the definition of malfeasance is a public official not doing what he is required to do by law, then certainly there are plenty of examples of that.”

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the corps, said his agency would not try to dodge ultimate responsibility for what he said was the first project failure in corps history.

“This has been sobering for us, because it’s the first time the corps has had to stand up and say we had a catastrophic failure with one of our projects,” Strock said Thursday. That issue, he said, had “weighed heavily on our minds.”

“The corps is responsible for the projects we build and manage,” he said. “And we are accountable to the American people.”

Strock said that building resilient systems to protect against water damage are difficult to justify because of the complicated rules set by Congress for their approval, many of which focus on the creation of immediate financial benefits.

“There’s a message here that we have to look beyond economic criteria,” he said.

A separate corps task force is now studying the role that the corps’ management structure played in the Katrina levee failures.

Strock said he’s also developing his own 12-point plan for future water projects, similar to guidelines the corps adopted years ago to integrate environmental review into the agency. He wouldn’t disclose most of the plan but said at the top of his list is requiring independent peer review of water projects before they’re built.

Such a requirement is being considered by Congress in long-delayed legislation to approve a series of water projects, including the proposed federal-state Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration plan, which would begin rebuilding the state’s wetlands.

“We can’t simply look at engineering independent of political and social considerations,” Strock said.

The task force’s report also included a potentially disturbing finding: Even if the levee walls had not failed and pump stations weren’t knocked off line by flooding, the combination of Katrina’s heavy rains and storm surge topping the west levee of the Industrial Canal still would have flooded significant parts of Lakeview and Gentilly in New Orleans, as well as neighboring parts of Metairie.

Radar at the Slidell office of the National Weather Service measured 8 to 14 inches of rain over the 24 hours that included Katrina’s landfall. The heaviest rain, according to the radar data, fell on the lakefront almost directly over the London Avenue canal, with almost as heavy rain spread west into Lakeview.

Only Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and the May 8-10, 1995, rain dropped more precipitation on the city, the report said.

Part of the report was a study of Katrina’s effects:
--More than 75 percent of the people who died from Katrina were older than 60.
--Poor, elderly and disabled people were the most likely to be living in the lowest elevations behind levees, the least likely to be able to evacuate without assistance and most likely to die.
--The depth of flooding determined the amount of losses and the speed of recovery. Areas with the least flooding have already made an almost complete recovery, while the areas with deepest water have seen little or no recovery or reinvestment.

The task force repeated its earlier findings that levee walls on the 17th Street and London Avenue canals and one wall on the Industrial Canal failed while surge water was well below the top of the walls. The walls failed when the water pushed them over enough to create a crack between the base of the walls and levee soils, allowing water to seep below the wall and ultimately shove the walls aside.

Those failures indicate “a dilemma in engineering,” Link said. “While new pieces of knowledge were available over time that were relevant to the ultimate performance of the I-walls on the outfall canals, the pieces were not put together to solve the puzzle of the failure mechanism that occurred,” he said. Those pieces included studies that indicated such failures might occur but that were not reviewed as the levees were being built, or afterward.

Link warned there is not a system in the corps’ planning process for upgrading designs to incorporate changes in engineering theory or the results of disasters like Katrina. That omission is exacerbated by the lack of cooperation between those who design and build levees and the research community that studies their weaknesses.

“The focus on ‘standards’ may in fact also deter this process,” Link said, referring to the corps’ practice of relying on a lengthy series of design manuals in building new projects. “Standards imply stability and constancy, when in fact the concept of ‘guidelines’ may be more appropriate, allowing and encouraging customization and adaptation as new knowledge emerges.”

(Bob Marshall may be reached at or (504) 826-3539. Sheila Grissett may be reached at or (504) 883-7058. Mark Schleifstein may be reached at or (504) 826-3327.)