Engineers Say Katrina was All the Fault of the Corps. Do We Feel Better in Dallas?

The point is that the Katrina disaster in New Orleans was the work of human beings, not nature. The only debate is which humans.EXPAND
The point is that the Katrina disaster in New Orleans was the work of human beings, not nature. The only debate is which humans.
Jeremy L. Grisham, US Navy, via Wikipedia

Why do I feel like I just got shot in the leg and now they’re sending me to a tailor? The North Texas Tollway Authority, which is in the toll road business, is now going to review the latest plan for the road the mayor wants to build on top of the Trinity River downtown.

Presumably the NTTA will look at the new design — a meandering park road on a raised bench next to the river — to see if it can collect enough tolls from it. I understand their concern. I hope they can understand why I’m more concerned with whether the thing is going to kill me.

The road and especially the bench they want to build it on is in the middle the levee system that protects downtown Dallas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated the catastrophe that would ensue if those levees ever failed as worse than what happened to New Orleans in the Katrina storm of 2005.

Katrina is why I happen to be thinking about this. An article about to be published in the journal Water Policy makes an argument that Katrina was entirely the fault of the Corps and not at all the fault of New Orleans. I want to call our own attention here to those options: either the Corps or New Orleans. Notable by her absence is Mother Nature.

So if those are our choices here, as well, then we can place our lives and our trust in the bosom of the Corps of Engineers, or we can place them in the bosom of that other august entity, Dallas City Hall? There, now. Feel better? Oh, and I forgot, didn’t I? The tollway authority. They’ll be looking out for us, too.

The Trinity River in Dallas, last spring.
The Trinity River in Dallas, last spring.
Dallas Observer

In other words, no matter how you read the new article and whether you agree with it or disagree, it should at least convince you that major urban floods have a lot more to do with decisions made by people than acts of God. Now, you can decide which people to trust to make those decisions for you.

When Katrina slammed into New Orleans at the end of August 2005, the New Orleans flood safety system suffered multiple catastrophic design failures responsible for hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. Four months later, The Los Angeles Times published a story pointing a bony finger of blame at local New Orleans officials.

A source quoted in the piece said local officials in the decades before Katrina had employed “stealth legislative trickery,” twisting the arm of the Corps of Engineers to abandon its own plans and build instead what the Corps knew was an inferior system of shoddy metal flood walls.

The central issue was always that Katrina hadn’t been big enough. The surges and flood levels of Katrina were well below levels the New Orleans system supposedly could stop. In one portion of the system alone, the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Protection Project, 50 breaches of flood walls occurred within a few hours at water levels as much as 5 feet beneath the tops of flood walls and levees. Obviously, somebody built the wrong system.

A series of subsequent investigations and associated articles all endorsed the version first published by the LA Times. In 2006, for example, a study funded by the National Science Foundation also found that local pressure had forced the Corps to build a lesser system.

Needless to say, that version was not taken well by New Orleans. The historian John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, who lives in New Orleans and has served on flood control bodies there, has championed the view that the Corps was ultimately and solely responsible for the Katrina disaster and any version blaming the city is a slander intended to deflect blame.

The new paper, a kind of study of the studies, seeks to put almost all of the blame definitively and finally back on the Corps. One of its principal authors, J. David Rogers , a professor of geological engineering at Missouri State University of Science and Technology, even eats his own hat, part of the brim, anyway. Rogers retracts his own conclusions in a 2008 paper in which he seemed to second the LA Times version. In this new version he calls his earlier finding, “an erroneous conclusion.”

On the one hand, this new paper is armed with some pretty good ammunition. It recounts that the Corps made “a mistake” in tests it ran on the cheaped-out floodwalls it wanted to build along the New Orleans flood relief canals. Something about a tarp being in the way so these great scientist/engineers didn’t notice that their test wall, instead of being entirely solid at the end of the test as they thought it was, was already seriously eaten away.

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The new paper finds it “particularly ironic” that the hey-did-anybody-look-under-the-tarp mistake saved the Corps $100 million. Either I don’t know what the word ironic means, or that’s how a bunch of engineers get around calling other engineers big fat liars.

Be that as it may, I still think the case for exonerating New Orleans is over-complicated and pretty thin at moments. The authors concede that New Orleans hired a lobbyist who worked the Louisiana congressional delegation to force the Corps to back off from its preferred flood protection plan, a system of massive flood gates at the inlets to the main canals. The Corps started developing that plan in the mid-1970s.

Local officials and the Corps of Engineers assure us we should not worry about this picture. That's exactly what local officials and the Corps told New Orleans before Katrina.
Local officials and the Corps of Engineers assure us we should not worry about this picture. That's exactly what local officials and the Corps told New Orleans before Katrina.
Jim Schutze

Instead, New Orleans wanted to leave the canals open and raise the levees and floodwalls along the canals though the city. It was a question of what to protect against first — huge storm surges attacking the city from without or heavy downpours and flooding within the city that would need to be pumped out. The Corps wanted to block the surge. The city wanted to pump out the neighborhoods.

The paper says nobody can really demonstrate that one system was superior to the other since the gates weren’t in place at the time (as they are now, more or less). And the paper says nobody consciously argued for a system they knew to be bad.

As a journalist, I may find this last argument less interesting than an engineer might, since I know from my own career that nobody currently in the pen thinks he consciously went out one night intending to knock over a beer store. It just turned out that way.

What the paper really hangs its hat on — and it’s a strong and legitimate point — is that the Corps badly screwed up the engineering of the flood walls. That single mistake, exacerbated by others, exacted a terrible toll in lives and property. New Orleans didn’t make that mistake. The Corps did.

The paper points out that the hey-did-anybody-look-under-the-tarp mistake would have been caught if the Corps had subjected its findings to a “peer-reviewed” system of scrutiny. But I don’t notice anywhere in the paper that local New Orleans officials submitted their just-raise-the-floodwalls idea to any peer reviews.

In fact, get real. Just like our 20-years-long debate about the Trinity River toll road, the New Orleans flood control system became a battle between competing interests with all kinds of dogs in the fight and every dog determined to win. These things are where aspirational democracy rams into the wall of empirical reality.

None of the principal players in the Trinity toll road project — not the city, not the Corps, certainly not the tollway outfit — can offer any science to withstand serious peer review. They don’t even try. They offer sales pitches.

Maybe in years to come, we can be like New Orleans and have all kinds of serious scientific articles written about us, debating whether our debacle was our fault or the Corps’. But don’t you wish there were a better way to work it out?


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