Time, organization hinder plan to protect New Orleans

Engineers say only a comprehensive strategy will provide safeguards

December 19, 2005|By MICHAEL ONEAL | MICHAEL ONEAL,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Sitting at his computer recently in a cluttered office at Louisiana State University, civil engineer Hassan Mashriqui tapped out a few commands on his keyboard and his screen came alive with tiny swirling arrows and flowing fields of color.

Within seconds, the arrows organized themselves into the unmistakable spiral of a raging hurricane plowing into a virtual version of the southeastern Louisiana coast.

"We can create the hurricane," Mashriqui said, describing how computer simulations are making it much easier for scientists to figure out how to protect New Orleans.

What he can't do is push a few buttons and bring some coherence to the swirling forces of politics, bureaucracy and uncertainty that are complicating the task of rebuilding the city.

Three months after Hurricane Katrina hit, it is clear that New Orleans will wither and die unless residents and businesses can be made confident that the region will be rebuilt to withstand the worst storms nature has to offer.

But with only six months to go before the next hurricane season, the effort to restore protection against another disaster is dogged by problems.

Money, of course, is the biggest hurdle to protecting the Louisiana coast. Estimates run as high as $32 billion at a time when Republicans in Congress are at war with themselves over funding.

But the effort also is hampered by organizational chaos, a lack of national resolve and a simple lack of time. At the moment, scientists are struggling to determine what the worst possible storm might be so engineers can figure out an appropriate protection strategy.

While officials in Louisiana have complained that the White House and Congress have yet to come up with a plan to rebuild the levees the federal government built in the first place, administration officials say they don't have enough information to do it correctly.

"It's a very complex issue, and it's important we get it right," said Donald Powell, the administration's liaison for the reconstruction effort.

Dan Hitchings, director of Katrina relief for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the administration soon will present a stopgap plan. A longer-term strategy would come later, when more engineering data is in, he said.

Hitchings estimated that the near-term plan would cost more than $2 billion. The goal would be to improve upon the previous system by capping earthen levees with some sort of armor and erecting huge pumps to take pressure off the drainage canals that flooded so disastrously.

The good news is that scientists and engineers close to the situation believe that it is possible to protect the region over the long term. But it will take a comprehensive system of interdependent man-made and natural features.

To rebuff the surges of water generated by powerful hurricanes, levees have to be strengthened and raised, the city's entire drainage system needs to be re-examined, and huge floodgates will be required to block storm surges into Lake Pontchartrain.

But even the sturdiest levee system eventually will fail, scientists say, unless there is an equal commitment to reconstruct the eroded coastal wetlands and barrier islands that temper the surge before it hits shore. The key, they say, is to treat the natural and man-made features as a single, unified system.

Successfully planning, building and maintaining such a complex and high-risk system, however, typically requires an equally unified management scheme. And that has been woefully absent in Louisiana.

"The problem is not technological, it's organizational," said Robert Bea, an engineering professor from the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the National Science Foundation task force charged with determining why the flood walls in New Orleans failed.

"What's missing," he said, "is simple leadership."

Indeed, the most glaring conclusion being drawn from the post-disaster investigations is that the flooding may owe as much to human and organizational incompetence as it does to nature. Hurricane protection in the region fell victim to what proved to be a deeply flawed amalgam of local levee boards, sewer and water utilities, and state and federal agencies, including the Corps of Engineers.

"This system is run by multiple bureaucratic agencies with multiple levels run by multiple politicians, all patch-worked together," said Col. Richard Wagenaar, who became chief of the corps' New Orleans District in July.

Forensic teams are finding that questionable design and construction, at least partly the result of splintered oversight, appear to have allowed floodwall failures to turn Katrina from a major hurricane into the worst natural disaster the nation has ever seen.

Michael Oneal writes for the Chicago Tribune

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