The Army Corps of Engineers is trying to rebuild confidence in the agency after Katrina's devastating blow.
The hurricane protection system around New Orleans isn't the only thing the Army Corps of Engineers has been trying to restore in southeastern Louisiana during the past year. The agency's reputation was badly damaged after Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore Aug. 29, 2005, overwhelming the system of levees, flood walls and dikes protecting the city and spawning the worst civil works disaster in the nation's history.
In an Aug. 24 conference call with reporters, Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock said the Corps would implement a dozen measures that would "transform" the way the agency operates. Among the most significant will be independent reviews from design through construction and continued maintenance of civil works projects; a more rigorous focus on risk analysis in both design and construction; and a more comprehensive effort to communicate that risk to the public and other stakeholders.
"Risk has always been an element of our planning, but it clearly needs increased emphasis in how we do our work," Strock said. "Today, the major driving points for recommending projects are economic justification, engineering feasibility and environmental acceptability."
A model for the independent review process, Strock said, is the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force the Corps created last October to examine why the flood control system in New Orleans failed and to make recommendations for preventing future failures. More than 150 engineers and other experts participated in the review, during which the American Society of Civil Engineers conducted a concurrent peer review so specific conclusions could be incorporated in the 220 miles of levees that have since undergone repair.
Lewis E. "Ed" Link, senior research engineer at the University of Maryland, led the task force. "The results of our analysis are in the ground now because of the good work of the ASCE review panel, because they basically were giving us real-time review. As we learned something new, we had the confidence through their review to recommend it to the Corps of Engineers teams who were rebuilding and repairing the levees," Link says. Since the task force review and levee repairs were to be completed by June 1 (the nine-volume, 6,000-page draft of the report is now being fully reviewed by the ASCE and the National Research Council), concurrence was essential to adopting the lessons.
David Conrad, senior water resources specialist at the National Wildlife Federation, says the reforms proposed by the Corps are critical, but he doubts they can be implemented in any meaningful way without congressional support. For one thing, robust independent reviews will cost money.
The Corps' annual appropriation is almost entirely composed of earmarks, he says. "They don't have [budget] line items for independent reviews," something the Bush administration previously tried to incorporate into the Corps' budget but failed to get through Congress, he says.
Congress now is considering some changes as it crafts legislation to reauthorize the Water Resources and Development Act, but in mid-September it wasn't clear what would emerge from negotiations aimed at reconciling differing House and Senate bills. The Senate bill contains an amendment by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., that would create a peer-review process independent of the Corps. The House bill also contained a peer-review provision, but it limited the scope of such reviews and gave the chief of engineers the right to waive them.
Since it was created by the Continental Congress in 1775, the Army Corps of Engineers has been an instrument of Congress bent on economic expansion. In a nation of special interests, where environmental protection goals frequently collide with economic interests and where local interests can supercede national ones when elections are at stake, the Corps at one time or another has engendered immense frustration among just about everyone with a stake in federal water policy.
Several independent forensic reviews of the breached flood protection system in New Orleans, including the task force review initiated by the Corps, reached similar conclusions: The system for planning, designing and building projects over the last 40 years was deeply flawed. Hurricane protection around New Orleans, begun in 1965 following Hurricane Betsy, had not been fully completed. There was wide variation in quality and levels of protection, and there was a lack of redundancy, which is critical to ensure that one component's failure doesn't doom the entire system.
"Part of what we learned was that the system that we use in the United States does not deal with change very well," Link says. The original 1965 design determined the height criteria for levees and flood walls based on the state of the science at the time. But storms became more intense and more frequent. In 1979, the National Weather Service revised its methodology for calculating storm intensity, yet that information never made it into the flood protection system.
"The levees and flood walls that were in New Orleans were still fundamentally designed to withstand that original 1965 storm," Link says. "They were not built to deal with a storm the size of Katrina." The massive size of Katrina generated a storm surge considerably higher than the system was designed to handle. Besides meteorological data, surge and wave characteristics need to be included in design calculations, the task force concluded.
In addition, because New Orleans sits on 30,000 feet of river sediment, which is slowly compressing, flood walls in some places are two and a half feet lower than when they were built 35 years ago, Link says. "The system changed, and again, there was no major response to that change by this nation, either federally or locally." And all the while, the population was increasing in the city, placing more and more people in harm's way.
The Government Accountability Office in September reported that the Corps continues to lack a comprehensive strategy for improving the flood protection system (GAO-06-934). "Instead, the Corps appears to be following a piecemeal approach, similar to its past practice of building projects without giving sufficient attention to the interrelationships between various elements of those projects or fully considering whether the projects will provide an integrated level of hurricane protection for the area," GAO reported.
Strock understands that many question whether the Corps is capable of reforming. On June 1, when the interagency task force released its draft report, Strock said, "We are mindful that the public trust is earned when we follow through on our actions."