Did New Orleans Have to Flood? Part II

It is looking more and more like the flooding of New Orleans resulted from preventable human error and not a physically overwhelming storm.

First comes this report:

But with the help of complex computer models and stark visual evidence, scientists and engineers at Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center have concluded that Katrina’s surges did not come close to overtopping those barriers. That would make faulty design, inadequate construction or some combination of the two the likely cause of the breaching of the floodwalls along the 17th Street and London Avenue canals — and the flooding of most of New Orleans.


Katrina’s initial surge from the southeast overwhelmed floodwalls along the New Orleans Industrial Canal, flooding the city’s Lower Ninth Ward as well as St. Bernard Parish. They believe that a little-used Army Corps navigation canal known as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet helped amplify that surge, although they acknowledge that this surge was larger than the system was designed to control.

But the researchers have strong evidence that Katrina’s subsequent surge from the north was several feet shy of the height that would have been necessary to overtop the 17th Street and London Avenue floodwalls. It was the failures of those floodwalls that emptied the lake into the rest of the city, filling most of New Orleans like a soup bowl.

On a tour Tuesday, researchers showed numerous indications that Katrina’s surge was not as tall as the lakefront’s protections. They showed a “debris line” that indicates the top height of Katrina’s waves was at least four feet below the crest of Lake Pontchartrain’s levees. They also pointed out how the breached floodwalls near the lake showed no signs of overtopping — no splattering of mud, no drip lines and no erosion at their bases. They contended that the pattern of destruction behind the breaches was consistent with a localized “pressure burst,” rather than widespread overtopping.

“This should not have been a big deal for these floodwalls,” said oceanographer G. Paul Kemp, a hurricane expert who runs LSU’s Natural Systems Modeling Laboratory. “It should have been a modest challenge. There’s no way this should have exceeded the capacity.”

The major levee that broke, the 17th St levee, was the responsibility of the notoriously corrupt and unfocused New Orleans Parish levee board. If design, construction and maintenance are indeed found to be at fault we know where to start looking.

This is not to say that the Feds are off the hook entirely. This story explains how the Army Corp of Engineers had no pre-positioned repair assets in the area in case of a levee breach, and that the idea and materials for repairing the breach came from a private company on its own initiative! ACE defends itself by noting that it has 350 miles of levees, all of different construction, to take care of, and that, besides, repair is the responsibility of the local levee board. I don’t buy it. Since the ACE ended up fixing the levee anyway, it seems they had something to do with levee repair, and they don’t seem to have planned ahead.

More and more, this looks to be a story that is less about a lack of resources and more about waste and mismanagement. It also raises the question of how money to reconstruct New Orleans should be disbursed. Should we funnel it through the same organizations that look to have failed, or do we come up with something new?

At this point, I’m thinking something new.

[Update: Commentator Jim Miller point to this story in the New York Times that raises the possibility that the canal levees were so poorly designed that they failed in conditions equivalent to a Cat 2 storm. If this contention is supported by future detailed investigations it will mean that the flooding of New Orleans resulted wholly from mismanagement and not from a lack of resources.]

2 thoughts on “Did New Orleans Have to Flood? Part II”

  1. Shannon,

    The USACE is in no way obliged to accept responsibility for local or State authorities that fail to adhere to clearly defined standards that condition the CoE participation in a public project in the first place. It is inappropriate for an independent command in the military to usurp civilian authority or to prepare to do so when the legal system decides against the USACE position in open court.

    Put bluntly, if legitimate legislative representatives and judges chose to ignore the USACE on matters of life and death, like the ability of levee’s to keep New Orleans from being submerged under twenty feet of water, then it is THE CIVILIAN authorities that MUST accept the consequences of doing so. The USACE does agree to assume additional responsiblities for resource management in extra-ordinary cases, but NEVER without first securing the necessary legal authority to maintain the Corps very high professional standards. The links to the USACE guidelines and related documents are in earlier posts on this subject.

    Without over-hydrating a drowned horse… the Louisiana State treasurer is insisting on outside auditors to oversee Federal relief fund distribution, basically an admission of political impotence, for a reason. This does NOT suggest outsiders should take promises from Louisiana Politicians eyeballing Federal billions as being remotely sincere. Until the Country sees New Orleans and/or Louisiana convict and jail the dirty politicians responsible, we should gird ourselves for more trouble rather than naively holding expectations contrary to experience and common sense. Once burned, twice shy… as my grannie always said, and I’d suggest this is especially true of famously corrupt political machines.

    Lastly. It is inexcusable folly to rebuild key national industries in a political jurisdiction that has yet to feel the wrath of the actuarials and litigators… If there was criminal liability on the part of State authorities, should Act of Nature claims be challenged? In a legal jurisdiction notorious for anti-business class action rulings, should an insurer imagine a challenged claim in THE SAME jurisdiction will receive a fair trial? Etc.

  2. People interested in this question will want to look at a story in yesterday’s NYT, which I commented on

    The story contains two admissions I thought significant: The Corps did not follow its own guidelines when it built the New Orleans floodwalls, and it did not test the floodwalls against storm surges that went over their tops — even though it was predicting that would happen.

Comments are closed.