Louisiana Levee Critics Now Less Critical The Army Corps of Engineers is rebuilding the main flood defense for Saint Bernard Parish, near New Orleans. But earlier this year, some critics accused the Corps of using sub-standard materials. The government disputed this claim. Critics recently visited the levees again and were happy with what they saw this time.
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Louisiana Levee Critics Now Less Critical

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Louisiana Levee Critics Now Less Critical

Louisiana Levee Critics Now Less Critical

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's a story about how one levee is being rebuilt a little more strongly.

It's the Mister Go levy in New Orleans. The locals call it Mister Go because it runs along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or M-R-G-O.

The levee is the main flood defense for Saint Bernard Parish, which is home to tens of thousands of people. Large sections of it were washed away by the storm surge after Hurricane Katrina.

The Army Corps of Engineers is rebuilding it, but earlier this year, some critics said they were using poor materials. That criticism raised doubts about the competence of the Corps and the safety of the levee, as well as whether people should return home.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports on what was said, and what happened next.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

Back in January, two engineers from the University of California, Berkeley, were heading out to New Orleans to survey the rebuilding of the levees. They wanted to get some soil samples, so they went to a garden store and got a small trowel. They got some plastic bags from the supermarket.

The engineers, Ray Seed(ph) and Bob Bea(ph), rode along the Mister Go levee in a heavy duty golf cart, called a Mule. The levee is an earthen berm, about 13 miles long. In some places they said it looked like a million bucks, made of good, clay-like material. But then they got to another stretch that was being rebuilt. Bob Bea went down with his plastic bags.

Professor BOB BEA (engineer, University of California, Berkeley): At this point, my heart, down there, stopped--because the material that they were putting in was almost pure sand. That is, I could pick it up and it was like sugar in a sugar bowl.

KESTENBAUM: Bea says he found problems in several locations. Bad material, often sand.

Mr. BEA: I wouldn't want to make a levee out of this pile of sugar sand 'cause I know that Mother Nature likes weaknesses.

KESTENBAUM: Now, the Army Corps contract for rebuilding the levee, specifies higher quality material, so if sand was being put in, that would be a problem. Public television, the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, ran a story covering the Berkeley team's concerns, and the Army Corps quickly put out an angry letter saying that Bob Bea had taken the samples from areas of discarded material, not material that was going to be used in the levee.

The letter cited a geotechnical engineer from the Corps who had accompanied the Berkeley team. NPR interviewed this engineer last month. His name is Rich Varuso.

Mr. RICHARD VARUSO (Engineer, Army Corps of Engineers): If I wanted to summarize, I would say that, you know, I didn't really see him take any suitable sample on our field trip out there that day.

KESTENBAUM: Varuso said in some cases there was sand in the levee. It was left over, part of the old levee. He said the plan was to cover it over with good quality clay. We showed him photos Bob Bea had taken. He took issue with every one. Varuso admits there was one case that day where a bulldozer was putting in improper material.

Mr. VARUSO: It looked like clay. I mean, when we pulled up to the site, it looked to me like it was gray clay, but upon further review when we got closer to the material, and we picked it up with our hands and we looked at it, we saw it was more sandy than it was clay.

As soon as we saw that, I told the contractor, hey (unintelligible), I know this looked like it was clay. It's not. It needs to come out of the berm. While we were having that conversation, the bulldozer started removing the material from the berm and Robert Bea took a sample out of that material, anyhow.

KESTENBAUM: Varuso says contractors sometimes make mistakes, that's why the Corps hires independent quality control people to double-check the work. We also spoke with another Corps official who said he knew of only a few occasions where improper material had been discovered, and it was removed. The Army Corps and the Berkeley team have clashed on a number of occasions, and Varuso found these criticisms frustrating.

Mr. VARUSO: I'm very frustrated. Keep in mind that, you know, we work for the federal government and our interest is not financial. Most of the people that are working on rebuilding these levees and these flood walls, we live in these communities.

I want people to, you know, in St. Bernard Parish, to know that the Corps of Engineers is working night and day, very hard, to make sure that these walls are being built bigger and stronger than they were before, and that they should have confidence to go back home.

KESTENBAUM: The Army Corps and the Berkeley team seem to be getting along better these days. Last week, at the invitation of the Army Corps, Bob Bea and Ray Seed returned to look at the MRGO levee again. We reached Bob Bea by phone yesterday. He said he was reassured by what he saw.

Mr. BEA: We were greeted by a large number of experienced and obviously enthusiastic contractors, who were being very, very diligent about the materials that they were putting into the breeches. We said bravo, keep it up!

KESTENBAUM: Bob Bea said he spoke with Rich Varuso from the Army Corps during the visit. The two still don't agree about what happened last time when Bob Bea took his samples away in zip-lock bags. Bea says he was right to raise the alarm. Good engineers, he says, are worriers.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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