Critics: Corps Can't Fix Levees By Hurricane Season

Frederick Thompson and his brother, Timothy (right)

hide captionFrederick Thompson and his brother, Timothy (right), on a break from emptying Timothy's condemned house in New Orleans' Gentilly neighborhood. Timothy says that if it will take years to repair the city's levees, he will relocate his family elsewhere.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
A dump truck pours gravel

hide captionA dump truck pours gravel at the site of a break along the 17th Street Canal in the Lakeview neighborhood. A 500-yard-long break along the canal caused some of the worst flooding in New Orleans.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Paul Kemp

hide captionPaul Kemp, a scientist with the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University, points to a flat plain of mud along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. The day before Katrina, an 18-foot-high earthen levee was here.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR

Dangers Were Long Known

Experts have been warning about the dangers that hurricanes posed to New Orleans and its system of levees for at least three years. Hear a two-part report from Daniel Zwerdling from 2002:

Steel levees crumpled, too.

hide captionSteel levees crumpled, too.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR

Bush administration officials have promised that the Army Corps of Engineers will repair New Orleans' broken levees by June 1 of next year, in time for hurricane season. But some researchers say that administration officials are misleading the nation: They say the Corps can't possibly get the job done that soon.

Among the critics is Walter Maestri, who runs emergency operations in New Orleans' biggest suburb, Jefferson Parish, which borders the 17th Street Canal. A 500-yard-long break along the canal caused some of the worst flooding in New Orleans.

The canal runs through the upscale neighborhood of Lakeview. Before Hurricane Katrina, the canal was lined on both sides with high concrete levees that protected a mix of large ranch homes and McMansions. During the hurricane, the walls of the levees collapsed.

"The homes that were standing here are completely gone. They have been washed away," Maestri says. He says he doesn't trust the Corps' assertions that the levees will be fixed in time for the 2006 hurricane season. "As far as real protection is concerned for the community, I just don't see it."

A History of Failure

Maestri doubts that the Corps can fulfill its pledge of rebuilding the levees to withstand a Category 3 hurricane by next spring. His distrust stems partly from engineering reasons, and partly from the Corps' history. The Army Corps took decades to design and build the New Orleans levee system — and that system failed in spectacular ways. Given that fact, Maestri questions how the Corps can assert that they already know how to fix those past mistakes. Pointing to a new steel wall that the Corps is erecting along the 17th Street Canal, Maestri notes that similar walls crumpled like tin foil during Katrina along other parts of the levee.

"We really felt all along that the Corps was a group that we could absolutely trust," Maestri says. "They wouldn't do sloppy work, or allow sloppy work. They realized that this community basically lives and dies on the strength of those levees. Now, what's happened — it's like finding out that your mother lied to you all the years of your life."

Paul Kemp, a scientist with the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University, says he doesn't trust the Corps' promises, either. Kemp and his team did some of the first studies after Katrina that showed that levees broke even when the water wasn't high enough to go over them.

Kemp says that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a shipping channel that connects New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, presents one of the biggest challenges for the Corps. The outlet is lined with earthen levees. They were once 18 feet high. Now, they are a flat plain of mud. They look like an endless row of hills that some giant has squashed.

Challenges in Rebuilding

Kemp says it should take five years to rebuild these earthen levees correctly. First, tons and tons of soil, sand and clay will have to be hauled in, dumped on the site, and packed down with steamrollers, he says. Then, engineers will need to wait a year for everything to settle and become compact. Another layer will need to be dumped the following year. The process will have to be repeated a third year, too.

When Kemp heard that an official at the White House had promised to fix the levees by June 1, he was puzzled.

"I think it has to do with what he means by 'fixed'," Kemp says. "Will we have structures that have grass on them that look like levees? Yeah, maybe. Will we have things we can depend on for resisting wave forces and surges of 17 or 18 feet? No, we won't."

A Failure to Acknowledge Mistakes

Walter Baumy, deputy chief of Taskforce Guardian, the Army Corps' project to rebuild the levees, insists that, "We will have hurricane protection in place by next year's season."

But Baumy acknowledges that there are still plenty of questions about the levees that he can't answer. For instance: Researchers have found evidence that when the Army Corps first built the levees, it used underground supports that were much weaker than they should have been. Baumy says that the Corps still doesn't know how many miles of levees were built that way and need to be rebuilt.

And some researchers warn that the Corps' proposal to close the three canals in the heart of the city to avoid future flooding might create new problems. Baumy says the Corps has yet to determine how valid those concerns are.

Ever since Katrina, some of the best engineers in America — government research teams and groups at leading universities — have been studying why the levees failed and how to fix them. They say it could take years to find all the answers, but their preliminary reports suggest that the Army Corps made critical mistakes when it designed and built the system. Yet Baumy doesn't acknowledge mistakes. He says nature destroyed New Orleans.

"This storm was not only large in mass, but it was also pushing a lot of water, storm surge with it. It simply overwhelmed the system in most areas," Baumy says.

When asked whether he thinks the Corps contributed in any way — through faulty design or through negligence — to the failure of the levees, Baumy says, "I'm not going to answer that at this point in time. As far as responsibility, there are a lot of experts, or so-called experts, out there that are rendering opinions. We are methodically proceeding through our own analysis."

A Clashing Message from Politicians

Critics say those comments reflect one of the main reasons why they don't think the Army Corps can make the levees safe yet. Robert Bea, part of a team from the National Science Foundation that is studying the levees, says officials who run the Corps need to take responsibility.

Bea says he's studied engineering disasters throughout history, and the evidence shows that organizations can't correct their problems until their leaders acknowledge mistakes. Bea says officials at the Army Corps need to tell the nation that they will not be able to protect New Orleans anytime soon.

But that's not what political leaders are saying. Following a meeting with President Bush at the White House two weeks ago, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called for residents and businesses to return to his city. "It's time for you to come home," he said. "It's time for you to come back to the Big Easy."

This disconnect between researchers and government leaders is putting ordinary people in a terrible bind. Timothy Thompson, a resident of the Gentilly neighborhood whose family lost most of its possessions in the flooding that followed Katrina, says he trusts the Army Corps.

"I feel that with the proper leadership and the right plan and sufficient funding, I believe that the levees can be rebuilt to withstand a Category 4, 5 hurricane by next season," Thompson says.

But Thompson's brother, Frederick Thompson, laughs at his sibling's sentiments. "What my brother says is hilarious to me because this city is no longer fit to live in, and we are not guaranteed that the system is going to fix the levee properly," he says.

Timothy Thompson says that if researchers are right, and government officials say it will take years to fix the levees, he will look for a future elsewhere. "Honestly, I'd be ready to pull up chalks," he says. "I'd be ready to leave and relocate my family."

Walter Maestri says he'd tell all the people whose homes were destroyed not to return unless they can move to higher ground.

"We're six months from the next hurricane season," Maestri says. "There is no way known to man, with all of our technology, that we can deal with all of this. And I don't know that any of us… can tell people that they should come back and experience this again."

Thomas Wolff, an engineer who used to work with the Army Corps and now teaches at Michigan State University, says the Corps could fix the levees much more quickly than critics suggest if it were given the resources to do so. President Bush says he wants to spend $3 billion fixing the levees. Researchers say repairs could cost five or 10 times that much.

Martina Castro produced this report.

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