The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ought to be held accountable for deadly mistakes the agency made in constructing the flood protection system for greater New Orleans.
The corps has evaded responsibility so far, despite mounting evidence that the agency ignored its own rules and disregarded sound engineering practices in the construction of canal floodwalls that failed during Hurricane Katrina.
An interim report issued last week by the corps-sponsored task force investigating canal breaches that swamped New Orleans Aug. 29 included language that seemed to be an attempt to exonerate the corps. Task force members say that was not their intent, and they blame the media for blowing the reference out of proportion.
But the task force is the one that said designers of the 17th Street Canal couldn't have anticipated the series of events that led to the failure of the canal's floodwall. If members didn't want to absolve the corps, they shouldn't have included such language -- and shouldn't have highlighted it in the report's executive summary.
And if they were trying to highlight significant findings, they should have pointed to another section. Tucked away in the voluminous report was the finding that one of the main factors in the failure of the 17th Street floodwall -- the weakness of soil under the toe of the levee -- could have been detected. That is a crucial misstep and one that the corps should have detected when floodwall designs were being drawn up. A few basic tests back then could have made a huge difference on Aug. 29.
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If the design team had done soil borings along the toe of the levee -- as should have been done -- it likely would have discovered the weakness in the layer of clay that the task force says gave way under pressure from Katrina's floodwaters. Had the weakness been found, the threat to safety would have prompted the corps to "have changed the design" of the floodwall, a corps researcher said Thursday.
The acting chief of engineering at the corps' New Orleans office acknowledged that soil borings are normally required to be done at both the center line and the toe of a levee. If soil tests aren't done at the toe of a levee -- where soils typically are weaker -- a formula exists for engineers to estimate the strength of those soils based on borings taken on the center line.
Apparently neither method was used at the spot where the 17th Street Canal was breached, and the dangerously weak soils at the toe of the levee went undiscovered.
Everyone in New Orleans knows what happened because of weaknesses in the floodwall: Lakeview and vast stretches of the rest of the city were submerged when Katrina hit and part of the wall collapsed. The loss of property was almost unfathomable, and the loss of life was all the more heartbreaking because many people who drowned should never have been threatened by floodwaters.
For the task force to characterize the combination of events that led to the destruction of so many New Orleans neighborhoods as unforeseeable is an affront. The missteps on the soil analysis were a major flaw in the construction of the 17th Street Canal. The weakness in the design not only could have been anticipated, it should have been anticipated. Even if other factors that led to the breach were unforeseen, this one certainly should have been.
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Task force leaders say they are not trying to protect the corps and do not intend to make a value judgment on how the canals were built.
If the task force is determined to maintain an objective stance, though, it should not insert language in its reports that gives the corps an out. If the task force wants New Orleanians to be able to trust its findings, it should not appear to be minimizing or covering up missteps by the corps.
The task force may not be concerned with determining who is at fault in the failure of our flood protection system, but it is vital to the recovery of this region for the corps to acknowledge its mistakes. If the corps is not willing to accept responsibility and change bad practices, it will be difficult for anyone to trust the agency's work. As has been painfully evident with NASA, one deadly disaster does not necessarily lead to a safer program in the future.
Task force members say that their findings are already leading to changes as the corps oversees the rebuilding of our damaged levee system. Soil borings are being done at the toe of the levees, for instance. That is a good step, but it is something that should have been done before.
The corps needs to be shaken up, and anyone who was part of the inferior work that led to the failures of the levee system here should be drummed out of the agency. Congress should make sure that happens.
Floodwalls that were supposed to protect greater New Orleans crumbled when they shouldn't have. Nature didn't do us in. The federal government's Corps of Engineers did.