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Warnings to Beef Up New Orleans' '60s-Era Levees Unheeded

Newhouse News Service | September 3 2005

Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers knew it for years, and emergency managers and hurricane experts issued dire warnings: The hurricane levees surrounding the New Orleans area were built to withstand only a relatively weak Category 3 hurricane -- not anything like Hurricane Katrina, a Category 4 mega-storm.

So it was no surprise that the system failed when Katrina's storm surge topped levees in the 17th Street and London Avenue drainage canals in New Orleans, broke through them and poured into the city. Water also spilled over levees in St. Bernard and in Eastern New Orleans and inundated those areas. The result is the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Now that the nightmare scenario has become a reality, devastated New Orleans residents, emergency managers and political leaders are asking: Why wasn't the nation's most vulnerable city protected? And when -- or if -- the city is rebuilt, how to protect it in the future?

"There were a lot of people in emergency management who were very frustrated," said Joseph Suhayda, a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University's Coastal Studies Institute who studies catastrophic hurricane risks. "They said this was just ridiculous. They couldn't stand the fact that they had this situation known as an unsolvable problem that had lasted for years, and they were faced with little staff and little resources. It should have been prevented."

The problem was, in fact, solvable. It's possible to engineer protections for the New Orleans area against Category 4 and 5 storm surges, which can top 20 feet: raising and fortifying levees, building gates to control water flow into the lake. That would cost $2.5 billion, according to Army Corps estimates.

But it never happened because of two problems, Suhayda said: a lack of political will to tackle an enormous and costly problem when competition for federal resources is intense; and what he called a "bureaucratic mentality" at the Army Corps that focused on incremental upgrades of existing structures.

The current levee system was designed in the 1960s in the wake of 1915 and 1947 hurricanes, whose storm surges inundated parts of the region. Army Corps engineers were limited by 1960s-era knowledge -- they used pencils and slide rules and suppositions about hurricane storm tracks and surges that engineers say are no longer valid. Only later, using computer modeling, did they estimate that the system would protect against a fast-moving Category 3 storm.

Designing levee systems is a complex task. Storm surges crossing south Louisiana's unusual landscape of lake, wetlands and artificial barriers rise to variable heights, making it impossible to design a simple solution.

It is also a political process based largely on past experience. For example, Mississippi River levees -- raised to 20-plus feet after disastrous flooding in 1927 -- are much higher than hurricane levees and offer much more protection, according to Corps statistics.

Since the 1960s the Corps has dedicated itself to building and then upgrading the levees. That alone is a major job. Levees are sinking in many spots because the whole area is sinking and eroding. That means proposing projects, passing them up through channels in successive presidential administrations, obtaining money from Congress.

It also means applying what are essentially bureaucratic standards for weighing costs vs. risks. "To identify a level of risk a given area faces, we do an engineering and an economic analysis and come to an optimum solution for a level of protection," Corps chief of engineers Gen. Carl Strock said Thursday. "In its early design stages it was meant to provide protection from a 200- to 300-year event striking the city. It is a very low probability."

But Suhayda said this approach -- which measures mainly property damage as the cost of disaster -- does not take into account the sheer scale and human cost of the tragedy unfolding now.

"The Corps says, `We did a benefit-to-cost analysis and that's how it came out,"' he said. "If you give an insurance adjuster an assignment to do a job like this, this is what you'll get. Well, what happens to your benefit-to-cost ratio now that the costs are astronomical?"

Louisiana members of Congress, who pride themselves on securing federal spending for the state, said that they had asked in general terms for more money for Corps projects, but had not singled out catastrophic hurricane protection for the New Orleans area.

"In speech after speech that I made, that the governor has made, we have said we need to fully fund the Corps of Engineers or we would have monumental problems," said former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who retired in January after 32 years in Congress and was a leader in getting coastal restoration money. "Because there is a limited amount of money, Congress hasn't been able to find funding for what the Corps' needs are."

Gov. Kathleen Blanco acknowledged Thursday that the state's priorities have not always focused on improving the levee system around New Orleans. "We certainly do need to put more attention on our levee network," Blanco said at a press conference in Baton Rouge.

There were many seemingly more urgent priorities and significant political obstacles. In recent years the Bush administration, struggling with budget deficits and the Iraq war, has tried to cut funding for the Corps while Corps officials and members of Congress have struggled to restore it -- succeeding sometimes, but not others.

At the behest of officials in low-lying areas in suburban New Orleans, for example, the Corps has pressed most strenuously for financing of flood protection measures outside the city, notably the Southeast Louisiana (SELA) urban flood control project, an intricate drainage system designed to quickly divert water in flood-prone areas.

Securing adequate funding for SELA year after year has been the major spending battle for the Louisiana delegation in Washington. Annually the Bush administration budgets far less than officials say they need and Louisiana lawmakers lobbying their colleagues in Congress to boost it.

The state's other principal focus was on coastal restoration. The bipartisan delegation this year secured a steady, $570 million stream of federal financing over four years to repair Louisiana's coastline, which erodes at a rate of 24 square miles per year, leaving the southeastern part of the state increasingly vulnerable to storms raging northward from the Gulf of Mexico. It was far short of the $14 billion the state says it needs.

The Corps did begin a decade-long study of the issue of expanded hurricane protection after Hurricane Georges sideswiped the city in 1998 and devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"Because that storm scared a lot of people, we were asked to start looking at how to protect the city from a Category 4 or 5 storm," said Corps project manager Al Naomi.

An initial report concluded "that there is a federal interest in Category 5 protection for this area," he said.

The next step would be a $12 million feasibility study, which would include a detailed estimate of the project's cost; determinations of how high, how wide, how strong; its economic impact; and an environmental impact statement, all of which has yet to be financed by Congress, Naomi said. But that faced obstacles.

"There have been funding issues in getting the project management plan together, and issues about getting permission to get the study totally funded," he said.

Naomi said that even if officials had embarked on the study years earlier, such projects can take decades from inception to completion, so it's doubtful the city would have been completely protected against Katrina.

Now that political leaders are pledging that New Orleans will be rebuilt, Naomi and other officials are saying that the huge infusion of federal cash likely to follow the disaster must include enhanced protection so that this never happens again.

If history is any guide, Congress may pass legislation ordering the Corps to prevent a similar tragedy from happening, said retired Gen. Robert B. Flowers, the Corps' former chief of engineers, who pointed to the Mississippi's high river levees built in the wake of flooding.

"You are like to see something akin to that come out of this disaster," Flowers said. "Sometimes, unfortunately it takes the worst to happen before things get done."


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