Investigations Seek Answers to New Orleans Levee Failures

Most people in New Orleans blame the Army Corps of Engineers for the failure of the levee system to protect the city from Hurricane Katrina. Government and independent investigators have been looking at why the system failed. They find that there are no easy answers.

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In New Orleans, one of the buildings that survived Hurricane Katrina sits on top of a levee in New Orleans. It's the local headquarters for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That building has a security fence around it, which probably is not a bad idea since many residents in New Orleans blame the Army Corps for the levee failures. Three separate engineering investigations are near completion. Two are due out this week. They have all found engineering problems, but no easy place to lay the blame, as NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

The levees in New Orleans were once seen as a triumph of engineering over nature. But not anymore.

Mr. BILLY PROCHASKA (Team Louisiana): This has greatly shaken my pride in the engineering profession.

KESTENBAUM: Billy Prochaska is an engineer working with Team Louisiana, an investigation funded by the state of Louisiana. The group intends to release its results next week. During Katrina, water poured over the top of some levees, but other flood walls were tall enough. They broke because of engineering problems. Prochaska's office is filled with documents. One shows measurements of soil strengths under the 17th Street canal wall. This is one of the walls that gave way. Prochaska believes there was a weak layer of soil beneath it. He said this made the wall unstable.

Mr. PROCHASKA: It's obvious that you had a problem area there, an area that needed more study than was given.

KESTENBAUM: So in short, how do you describe this design?

Mr. PROCHASKA: Questionable. And this isn't the only place.

KESTENBAUM: Questionable, or like obviously terrible?

Mr. PROCHASKA: Well, it's questionable. I mean, it's not something I would have done.

KESTENBAUM: Prochaska says building anything in New Orleans is difficult. There are houses right next to the canal, for instance, so there was no room for a wider, more stable levee. For that he blames the local Levee Board.

Mr. PROCHASKA: The Levee Board did not want to condemn any property or expropriate any property, because they're politically appointed. So that politician would be in hot water.

KESTENBAUM: A lot of groups had a hand in shaping what was eventually built. A second, much larger investigation includes many engineers from the Army Corps. It has an independent panel looking over its shoulder. David Daniel is heading that team. He went to New Orleans shortly after Katrina.

Mr. DAVID DANIEL (Head of Independent Panel): My reaction was, my goodness, this is the biggest civil engineering failure of my lifetime.

KESTENBAUM: The government investigation found a variety of design flaws. The London Avenue canal, for instance, failed when water wormed its way underneath the wall. And David Daniels says overall the levee system was not designed conservatively enough.

Mr. DANIEL: For example, in a high rise building when we're designing the floors to support the weight of the people in the building, we would not just assume there would be a few people in the room at any one time. We would assume the room is absolutely packed with people, books are stacked up on the floor, and that the weight on the floor is as high as one could imagine that it reasonably could be.

KESTENBAUM: He doesn't see that kind of thinking in the original designs. The Corps was under financial pressure, and some local agencies had criticized the Corps for setting overly high engineering standards. The Corps' guidelines call for designing levees and flood walls 30 percent stronger than they minimally need to be, what engineers call a factor of safety of 1.3. Some now wonder if that shouldn't have been higher, considering the levees protected a city and not, say, farmland.

Mr. BOB BEA (Engineer, University of California, Berkeley): I express that as an appropriate factor of safety to defend canals.

KESTENBAUM: Bob Bea is an engineer from the University of California, Berkeley, working on a third investigative team that got a grant from the National Science Foundation. If you ask Bob Bea whose fault all this is, he says there's plenty of blame to go around: engineers who didn't ask tough enough questions, warning signs that were missed, difficult local politics and environmental issues, and a general sense that the big hurricane might be a hundred years away.

Mr. BEA: You can't pin this, so to speak, on any single person, individual or organization. I know that's frustrating, but from everything I'm able to tell, that's the truth. By the way, that's not unusual in things like this.

KESTENBAUM: The Berkeley team will release their report on Monday.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

INSKEEP: One of the most critical failures occurred at the 17th Street canal. And if you listen to NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED tonight, you will listen to David taking an in-depth look at what the investigation has found.

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