Life-and-Death Decisions

Even the smallest choices can have huge effects.

The recent ceiling collapse that killed a motorist in Boston's Big Dig and the failure of New Orleans levees to protect the people behind them prove that management decisions of the smallest nature sometimes can mean the difference between life and death.

On July 10, Angel Del Valle and his wife, Milena, were driving through the tunnel in Boston when 12 tons of concrete ceiling panels collapsed onto their car. Angel survived; Milena, 38, did not. The federal Transportation Department is investigating the cause of the collapse, but given the absence of foul play, it is clear this was an engineering failure. The bolts and epoxy holding up the ceiling did not do their job.

A year ago in New Orleans, more than 1,200 people died in the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina and the breach of the levee and floodwall system. Parts failed even though the water never surpassed the system's design capabilities. Engineers said last fall that, among other minor improvements, putting concrete slabs at the base of flood walls would have reduced erosion and strengthened the structures. "The performance of many of the levees and floodwalls could have been significantly improved, and some of the failures likely prevented, with relatively inexpensive modifications of the levee and floodwall system details," Raymond Seed, a University of California at Berkeley engineering professor, told Congress in November after reviewing the system.

The Big Dig highway cost $14 billion and took well over a decade to build. It was complex, involving many federal, state and local agencies and numerous contractors. The New Orleans levee system was similarly complex, involving many agencies and many contractors. These two projects have been the subject of numerous oversight reviews by inspectors general and other watchdogs. In both cases, the engineering problems that contributed to the deaths were identified by overseers in the past, though the significance of the problems was not understood before it was too late.

Because both projects were messy, complicated affairs with multiple masters over many years, it's hard to pin the engineering failures on any particular player or any particular decision. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned about the need for clear lines of authority, centralized control and oversight methods that not only identify problems but make sure they are solved. Continuity of leadership was missing in both cases.

But the bottom line is that these were engineering failures, of materials that were bolted, glued or poured into place to protect people. Those types of failures are particularly hard to fathom when we assume that the fields of engineering, construction and inspection have progressed so far that we needn't worry about the integrity of the structures we rely on. It's easy for managers and executives to assume effectiveness in the base issues of construction materials and workmanship and focus attention on higher level management challenges.

Unfortunately, such assumptions are not warranted. Federal project managers must consider such fundamental concerns as whether the bolts are holding or the levees are made of the right materials. It is still true that those are life-and-death decisions, even in the 21st century.

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