Work on levees marked by dysfunction

Partnership of Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans officials proved ineffective

December 25, 2005|By STEPHEN BRAUN AND RALPH VARTABEDIAN | STEPHEN BRAUN AND RALPH VARTABEDIAN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and New Orleans levee officials joined forces in July 1985 to protect the city from a long-feared hurricane, the two agencies could not agree on how to proceed. It was the beginning of a dysfunctional partnership that ushered in two decades of chronic government mismanagement.

Corps engineers wanted to install gates in front of the city's three main internal canals to protect against violent storm surges from Lake Pontchartrain. The Orleans Levee District, the city's flood protection agency, preferred to build higher flood walls for miles along the canals. For five years, neither side yielded.

But in October 1990, a deft behind-the-scenes maneuver by the levee board forced the corps to accept higher flood walls. As Senate and House negotiators gathered to craft the Water Resources Development Act of 1990, Louisiana's congressional delegation quietly inserted a lobbyist's phrasing ordering the corps to raise the levee walls.

"It was stealth - legislative trickery," said New Orleans lawyer Bruce Feingerts, who lobbied for the levee board. The gambit was a crucial victory over the corps by the Orleans district, the most powerful and well-financed among 18 Louisiana boards that supervise more than 340 miles of storm levees across the hurricane-prone southern half of the state. The corps had to abandon its floodgate plan and shoulder 70 percent of the project's costs while allowing the Orleans board to hire its own consultants to design the strengthened levees.

But their fractious partnership proved disastrous. While the corps and the Orleans board settled into an acrimonious 15-year relationship, spending $95 million to buttress the city's canal levees, their shared supervision failed to detect crucial weaknesses inside the flood walls before Hurricane Katrina struck.

"No one felt the urgency, none of us," said Lambert C. Boissiere Jr., a former Orleans levee commissioner. Structural inspections were cursory. Maintenance was minimal. A confusing regulatory patchwork of ownership over the levees and canals blurred the lines of authority - all shortcomings cited by independent engineering teams analyzing the levees' collapse.

Although the corps and federal officials kept a tight leash on funding, the Orleans board spent money lavishly, diverting resources to high-stakes investments such as casinos and marinas.

Left unchecked because of repeated failures by the Louisiana Legislature to reform the levee board system, critics say, the Orleans district operated its own patronage system.

"The New Orleans board had the reputation of being one of the worst - by worst, I mean more political than professional," said former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer III, a Republican whose Orleans board appointees launched the 1990 power play in Congress.

When Katrina hit in late August, floodwater from Lake Pontchartrain burst through the walls of the 17th Street and London Avenue levees, where steel foundations gave way in porous soil.

Last week, the corps announced plans to seal off the three broken canals with permanent barriers and relocate New Orleans' pump houses from inside the city to the lakeshore - at a cost of $3.1 billion. The corps' move to abandon the flood-control system it built with the Orleans board came as a bitter coda to a 20-year relationship.

Money was the most pressing concern in July 1985, when Orleans levee officials signed "assurances" - an official commitment - to join the corps in buttressing New Orleans' hurricane protection system.

The corps' traditional preference for a "least cost" project made floodgates a far more attractive option - at $20 million - than the $60 million estimate for raising the levees.

"We were caught between the [Reagan] administration saying, `Keep the cost down,' and Congress and New Orleans officials saying, `Spend more,'" said Fred H. Bayley III, then the corps' director of engineering for the Lower Mississippi Valley Division.

But the corps' proposed "butterfly-valve gate" - a concrete-and-steel barrier that would open to let out water and close to seal off storm surges - was untested in high storm conditions.

The corps' plan also clashed with the city's practice of using its system of antiquated pump stations - two miles inside the city - to force floodwater out into the lake through the canals. Officials with the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, who supervised the canals, feared that in a major hurricane, the gates would jam with debris and canals would back up, submerging the city.

Corps engineers had been fixated on floodgates since the 1970s, when the agency proposed using towering gates to block off surges at the far eastern end of the lake. That plan was the corps' response to Hurricane Betsy, a storm that hit New Orleans in 1965, swamping the city's Lower 9th Ward, killing at least 75 people and causing more than $1 billion in property damage.

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