New Orleans repeating deadly levee mistakes
In a yearlong review of levee work here, The Associated Press has tracked a pattern of public misperception, political jockeying and legal fighting, along with economic and engineering miscalculations since Katrina, that threaten to make New Orleans the scene of another devastating flood.
Dozens of interviews with engineers, historians, policymakers and flood zone residents confirmed many have not learned from public policy mistakes made after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which set the stage for Katrina; many mistakes are being repeated.
"People forget, but they cannot afford to forget," said Windell Curole, a Louisiana hurricane and levee expert. "If you believe you can't flood, that's when you increase the risk of flooding. In New Orleans, I don't think they talk about the risk."
Tyrone Marshall, a 48-year-old bread vendor, is one person who doesn't believe he's going to flood again.
"They've heightened the levees. They're raised up. It makes me feel safe," he said as he toiled outside his home in hard-hit Gentilly, a formerly flooded property refashioned into a California-style bungalow.
Geneva Stanford, a 76-year-old health care worker, is a believer, too. She lives in a trim and tidy prefabricated house in the Lower 9th Ward, 200 feet from a rebuilt floodwall that Katrina broke.
"This wall here wasn't there when we had the flood," Stanford said, radiant in a bright kanga-style dress. "When I look at it now, I say maybe if we had had it up it there then, maybe we wouldn't have flooded."
They're not alone. A recent University of New Orleans survey of residents found concern about levee safety was dropping off the list of top worries, replaced by crime, incompetent leadership and corruption.
This sense of security, though, may be dangerously naive.
For the foreseeable future, New Orleans will be protected by levees unable to protect against another storm like Katrina.
When and if the Army Corps of Engineers finishes $14.8 billion in post-Katrina work, the city will have limited protection — what are defined as 100-year levees.
This does not mean they'd stand up to storms for a century. Under the 100-year standard, in fact, experts say that every house being rebuilt in New Orleans has a 26 percent chance of being flooded again over a 30-year mortgage; and every child born in New Orleans would have nearly a 60 percent chance of seeing a major flood in his or her life.
"It's not exactly great protection," said John Barry, the author of "Rising Tide," a book New Orleans college students read to learn about the corps' efforts to tame the Mississippi.
As a rule, any levee building makes people feel good in this unsettling landscape where the Gulf of Mexico can be seen gleaming from the top floors of skyscrapers and where the ubiquitous dynamics of a sinking and eroding river delta ripple through every aspect of life.
Levees tend to get built after devastating hurricanes: It's happening now and it happened after Betsy struck and flooded much of the same low ground that Katrina invaded.
"We did go in and did a whole bunch of levee work right after Betsy," said Philip Ciaccio, a New Orleans appellate judge and longtime former politician from eastern New Orleans, a reclaimed swamp transformed into the Big Easy's version of the American suburban dream.
Between Betsy and Katrina, about 22,000 homes were constructed in eastern New Orleans out of an abundance of confidence.
"We were under the illusion that what we had done would prevent another Betsy from flooding the area," Ciaccio said. "Hopefully the experts know what they're doing this time."
The corps says its work is making the city safer, but there are serious doubts.
At every step in the scramble to correct the engineering breakdowns of Katrina, independent experts have questioned the ability of the corps, an agency that has accumulated ever more power over the fate of New Orleans, to do the right job.
On the road to recovery, the agency has installed faulty drainage pumps, used outdated measurements, issued incorrect data, unearthed critical flaws, made conflicting statements about flood risk and flunked reviews by the National Research Council.
At the same time, the corps has run into funding problems, lawsuits, a tangle of local interests and engineering difficulties — all of which has led to delays in getting the promised work done.
An initial September 2010 target to complete the $14.8 billion in post-Katrina work has slipped to mid-2011. Then last September, an Army audit found 84 percent of work behind schedule because of engineering complexities, environmental provisos and real estate transactions. The report added that costs would likely soar.
A more recent analysis shows the start of 84 of 156 projects was delayed — 15 of them by six months or more. Meanwhile, a critical analysis of what it would take to build even stronger protection — 500-year-type levees — was supposed to be done last December but remains unfinished.
Another opportunity for setbacks: The corps says it will need more than 100 million cubic yards of clay and dirt to build up levees — enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome 20 times.
Also on the corps' drawing board are gigantic pumps capable of pushing more than 20,000 cubic feet of water per second. For comparison, the biggest pumps in New Orleans move about 6,000 cfs every second and they're among the most impressive in the nation.
That's not all: The corps has awarded The Shaw Group a $695 million contract to build a massive barrier against storm surge in the Industrial Canal. It's touted as one of the biggest public works projects ever performed by the agency.
Publicly, the corps says the work is on budget and will be done by 2011.
"The progress I see each time I visit is really remarkable. The region has a better hurricane and storm damage reduction system in place than ever before in its history — and it will continue to get better," Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, the corps chief, wrote on his blog in April.
Al Naomi, a corps branch chief who's worked for the past 37 years in New Orleans, said he was upbeat because Congress has shown a willingness to fund the work. In addition, he said, enough elements are coming together to make him "cautiously optimistic" the work will stay on track.
"We are in pretty good shape financially to do quite a bit of work in this area," he said.
Doubts, though, weigh on those familiar with the game plan.
"It's almost one of those proverbial 'you can't get there from where we are' situations," said Gerald Spohrer, executive director of the West Jefferson levee district. The deadline, he said, is "overly optimistic."
The trouble so far stirs up bad memories: Of the four decades of excruciatingly slow levee building after Betsy.
Betsy was eerily similar to Katrina. The levees broke. Water reached roof tops and people clung to trees for survival. A flotilla of rescuers worked for days in lingering floodwaters.
In Betsy's aftermath, President Lyndon B. Johnson — like President Bush — pledged to rebuild New Orleans and make it safe from hurricanes. Little more than a month after the storm, Congress gave the corps $85 million to build a Category 3 hurricane levee system.
By 1976, though, the Government Accountability Office found the completion date for the work had slipped 13 years, from 1978 to 1991. Costs had soared to $352 million. By 1982, the GAO found that the project's cost had increased to $757 million and the agency said the work would not get done by 2008.
Katrina's storm surge laid bare the incomplete and inadequate work.
What happened? By 1968, a Congress worn down by the Vietnam war and economic turmoil began reining in spending; at the same time, the work met resistance from Louisiana politicians, communities, environmentalists and businesses fighting for individual interests.
For example, the corps scrapped a plan in the 1970s to build a floodgate at the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain out of concern that it would impede boats and marine life. Next, the alternate plan to build gates at the mouths of city drainage canals was rejected. Finally, the corps built floodwalls on the canals — and they broke during Katrina.
Can this sort of history repeat itself?
"All the human instincts post-Katrina are the same (as) post-Betsy," said Oliver Houck, a natural resources law professor at Tulane University and longtime New Orleans resident who participated in many of the fights since Betsy.
Some present-day examples of those instincts:
— Politicians have pushed for development in wetlands, undercut flood protection efforts with legislation and balked at paying for levee work.
— Environmentalists have pushed for wetlands-sensitive policies that arguably could add millions of dollars in costs.
— Residents have filed lawsuits to stop the corps from removing trees the agency says pose a risk to levees and sued the corps over the Katrina levee breaches.
— Policymakers are encouraging development in risky areas.
Ameliorating that last instinct is the business of Joe Sullivan, the 82-year-old city engineer who's overseen the New Orleans drainage and water department for nearly a half century.
"We keep building in holes, and contractors keep trying to move in and take advantage of a situation: They come in with a bunch of contractors, sell off property in low places, take their money and run," Sullivan said.
He runs his finger across a city drainage map. On it, green indicates low-lying terrain, and green is everywhere.
"You see that green spot up there? That's below sea level, well below sea level," he said. "There's some people going to have dinner tonight out there in New Orleans east, they're walking on the floor inside their house at 13 feet below sea level."
Naomi, the Corps of Engineers veteran, said his agency was candid about telling people the risk they face.
"We're in the job of risk reduction, not risk elimination," he said. "Strictly relying on levees alone should not give anyone the impression they are risk free. I think that would be a horrible mistake to make."
Three years since Katrina killed more than 1,600 people and destroyed a way of life here, New Orleans is trying to reclaim a past taken away from it.
And there are some promising signs.
Streetcars are swaying on St. Charles Avenue again. Coteries of old men have reappeared, swapping stories in the shade. There are plans for new parks, schools and theaters.
But the past remains prologue in another sense, too: This majestic city is still perilously at the mercy of the next hurricane.
"What we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history," said Tim Doody, the president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, a consolidated regional levee board created after Katrina to improve levee protection.
"What happened after Betsy? Katrina," Doody said. "And what's going to happen after Katrina? Pick a name and put it on it and it's going to happen again unless we pull together to make sure."
Last updated: 9:56 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012