Are the Levees Ready?

C.C. Campbell-Rock
Date Published: 
June 14, 2006


“We look back to learn better how to go forward." - Dr. Bob Bea

Looking back


Robert Bea, Ph.D., and Raymond Seed, Ph.D., professors of civil and environmental engineering at University of California at Berkeley, shocked the public on June 1, the first day of the hurricane season, with a stunning draft report on the condition of the New Orleans levees.

The National Science Foundation" sponsored Independent Levee Investigative Team's evaluation and scathing review of what happened to 350 miles of levees before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, admittedly the worst catastrophe in American history, uncovered the frightening truth about the man-made disaster that followed the storm and claimed nearly 2,000 lives.

The report is the result of an eight-month study by an independent team of 40 scientists and engineers led by Seed. The ILiT released the "Investigation of the Performance of the New Orleans Flood Protection Systems in Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005" on June 1.

"People didn't die because the storm was bigger than the system could handle, and people didn't die because the levees were overtopped,' Seed told reporters on June 1. "People died because mistakes were made and because safety was exchanged for efficiency and reduced cost."

The day before, on May 31, 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for building the levee protection system, released a preliminary report on what went wrong with the levees, lessons learned and recommendations for the future.

Altogether, three groups of experts studied the worst "natural" disaster in America: Seed's ILlT, Dr. Ivor Van Heerden's Louisiana State University team, and the Army Corps of Engineers' Interagency Performance Evaluation Team (IPET), composed of 150 experts from government, academia and industry who analyzed the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the hurricane protection system and developed a list of lessons learned.

The Corps also commissioned the American Society of Civil Engineers to do an independent external review of the Corps' evaluation, with additional oversight by the National Research Council.

In the end, IUT scientists and engineers found that design flaws, faulty construction and cost-cutting measures on the part of both the federal and state governments led to the man-made disaster of Aug. 29, 2005, not the hurricane.

Wikipedia, the popular online research website, describes Hurricane Katrina as the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States.

"It was the 11th named storm, fifth hurricane, third major hurricane and second Category 5 hurricane of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. Katrina is estimated to be responsible for $75 billion (2005 U.S. dollars) in damages, making it the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. The storm has killed at least 1,836 people."

"We found the system essentially riddled with extremely important and critical flaws and defects, and these things had, not by intent or by some sort of evil force, been embedded in the system. But largely since the 1965 Hurricane Betsy, we riddled the system with flaws. And when it was seriously challenged by Hurricane Katrina, we failed," Bea said about the Army Corps of Engineers' 41-year levee protection project.

The ILiT team also found evidence that the original specifications were wrong and that adjustments and corrections were put on the back burner to save costs.

'The specifications sort of got frozen back in the 1960s period, and, in fact - some, in fact, pre-date the 1960s. The specs were being sidestepped or modified in an attempt to work with what we had," Bea said on NPR.

Bea knows, perhaps more than anyone else studying the catastrophic ~vent, the life-threatening nature of the flawed levee system. He lived and worked in New Orleans for 15 years. He was an engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Bea is a survivor of Hurricane Betsy. Betsy landed near the mouth of the Mississippi River, causing significant flooding of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which took on more than 15 feet of water. Scores of people drowned.

His family lost everything in the Category 4, 155-m.p.h. storm that hit New Orleans on Sept. 9, 1965.

"When Betsy hit in 1965, I swam back to my house," Bea told the San Francisco Bay View. "It takes an experience like that to understand what it means to have real flood protection."

Back then, Hurricane Betsy was the costliest hurricane in the history of the United States, earning the nickname "Billion-Dollar Betsy" and causing $10-$12 billion worth in damages.

Bea's family lost their most prized possession, their wedding pictures. Their eldest son was three years old, but both sons were born in New Orleans. He was able to "muddle through" because he had a good job, but, "When I got on the ground (after Hurricane Katrina) and saw what happened, I cried and I got mad," he said.

It was deja vu.

He visited his old house in Pines Village near the airport and saw the owners dragging wet mattresses out.

"What flooded New Orleans this time ... what we found was the damn breaches were almost in the same places," he said of the study's results.

"New Orleans has now been flooded by hurricanes six times over the past century, in 1915. 1940, 1947, 1965, 1969 and 2005. It must be our goal that it not be allowed to happen again," the authors wrote.

The final ILiT report will be released in the fall.

An Army Corps of Engineers advisory said repairs to the damaged levee system were 99 percent complete.

"If a duplication of the Katrina storm occurred today, we would expect one third of the flooding due to rainfall and overtopping and wave overwash in some areas. It remains possible that some levee could breach as a result of overtopping. However, there would be no storm surge damage related to the outfall canals as occurred during Katrina," the Corps IPET report asserted.

The Corps report blamed the flooding on "overtopping of the levee. But Seed's report said overtopping was "not the primary cause of flooding."

The Berkeley-led team said the levees failed because of "design and construction errors resulting from insufficient money and lack a appropriate oversight by federal, state and local agencies, in particular the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers."

"The flood control system surrounding New Orleans was pervasively flawed and experienced systemic failures at multiple locations," the IUT report explained. The Corps began building the Flood Protection System in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy devastated the Lower Ninth Ward and hundreds died. Targeted for completion by 2017, the system remains unfinished.

Dr. Ivor Van Heerden, director of the Center for Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes and the deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, an< other Louisiana scientists have been warning everyone for 10 yean that the levees were unstable.

"Southeast Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, is super susceptible. So New Orleans was and still is extremely vulnerable to flooding from major hurricanes," said Van Heerden.

The scientist added that the Corps erred in not using updated hurricane impact data, even though the federal agency had been instructed to do so. "If they had used what they were supposed to, we would've been designing for a Category 4 storm, 140 mile-an-hour winds," Van Heerden added.

Now that the Corps has rebuilt almost all the levees, are they ready to withstand another Katrina-size hurricane or one larger?

"No," Van Heerden told NPR listeners. "If we had another Katrina: we would see overtopping of levees that aren't high enough. There are still a lot of sections of the levees that are in a weakened state. Another Katrina, and the waves will chew them up just as badly as it did in Katrina."

. Dr. David E. Daniel, the chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers, External Review Panel and president of the University of Texas at Dallas, was also on the NPR show.

"The hurricane protection system was constructed piecemeal over a period of decades, without a system-wide approach to design or integration of design with evacuation and recovery plans. We believe that the entire system needs to be rethought in the context of a comprehensive, system-wide, risk-based approach," said· Daniel.

"Failure of the New Orleans Flood Defense System was not caused by an ovelWhelming extreme natural event (hurricane wind, waves, currents and surge). Our studies indicate that the majority of the flooding came from unanticipated and unintended breaches in the levees (many adjacent to other structures), failures in the floodwalls and water entering through gaps (floodgates not in place) or low spots in the NOFDS," Daniel added.

The authors of the ASCE report charged the Army Corps of Engineers, the New Orleans Levee District and consultants and contractors with "failures of foresight, failures of organization, failures of diligence, failures of trade-offs, failures of management, failures of synthesis, failures of risk assessment and management."

Looking forward

Bea said it could cost $40 billion over 40 years to build an adequate flood protection system for New Orleans. Since Katrina, Congress has appropriated $3.3 billion for levee work, and President Bush has asked for $3.9 billion more.

The (LIT recommended "fixing the organizational problems_ rethinking the design of the whole system, not just the pieces; raising the levees and floodwalls and armorin9 them; and designing the pumping system so that it will work during and after a major hurricane.

"As we go fOlWard here in Louisiana, I'm really encouraging everybody to look at the Netherlands. They've got it right. They've combined hard structures and earthen levees and they've got some excellent pump technology," Van Heerden said. "The plus we have in Louisiana is our coastal wetlands, what's left of them. We have barrier islands, and we have the sediment of the Mississippi River." If the levees aren't ready for a Category 5 hurricane, should New Orleanians return?

"If I was a Ninth Ward resident, I would wait until I saw demonstrated evidence that my area is safe," Bea advised.

Seed said the people must unite and demand that the levees be built right, immediately. "Unless 200,000 people get together to move home, you can't go home. You need a local champion. The mayor needs to rise up like a champion."

The engineering professor and others on the IUT are willing, he said, if asked, to go to New Orleans, free of charge, to brief New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and other government officials on the condition of the levees.

Rosalyn Nocentelli Flo!, a New Orlean ian and Katrina survivor, now residing in Southern California, intends to stay in California until the 2006 hurricane season is over.

"That will give the Army Corps of Engineers ample time to complete their job on the levees," said Flot, who will commute to New Orleans every month to check on her personal properties, family and friends' properties and to see what she can do to assist the city of New Orleans in its recovery.

Flot plans to return to New Orleans. "I love New Orleans and could not imagine living anywhere else other than the Big Easy. Anything you love is worth fighting for. Each person must make his or her own decision on when they will or can return home.'

Flot has pondered whether to build or rebuild, live and die in New Orleans or live and die in Los Angeles.

"The choice is simple. No place is safe. And there is no place like home. New Orleans is rebuilding, and I must be a part of that gumbo. I will end by quoting one of the city of New Orleans' greatest leaders for the people's rights, Councilman at Large Oliver Thomas, who said, 'We are gOing to find out who just likes the gumbo or who's got the gumbo in them.'"

Flat's commitment to assist in the rebuilding process includes helping fellow survivors. She recently launched a new 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, Survivors for Survivors, Inc., which will bridge the gap in services and provide for the safe return of New Orleanians to their hometown.

Rev. Dwight Webster, a New Orleans resident. evacuated his family to Berkeley, California. The pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church has commuted back and forth, holding services since shortly after the hurricane. Will his family return?

Of the Websters' four sons, one is a senior at Berkeley High and another is in ninth grade. His wife, Trudell, has a good job and the minister is currently completing a dissertation at UC Berkeley.

'I have to go back whether 1 live there or not. But the governor's recovery piece and the fads have made it extremely difficult to go back," Webster said.

The pastor criticized the govemor's plan to give individual homeowners a $150,000 grant as "anti-middle class." "By the time you deduct the insurance claim and FEMA aid,» there will be little to no money to repair and renovate or raise your home, Webster explained.

"My house is four feet below sea level. It costs $40,000 to raise a pier house, and I know some folks who have already paid $100,000 to raise their slab houses."

Regarding the levees, the minister said, "Given money and time, the levees can be done correctly. Some fire has to be built under the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that they continue working to improve the levees.»

"I don't think we'll ever reach the point where you'll have perfect assurances on the levees. Until they build them up to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, the city will always be· flood-prone. The hypothesis I'm operating under is that the risk is no greater than it was before," said Mtangelese Sanyika, a former Dillard University college professor and Katrina survivor.

Sanyika, the director of the African American Leadership Project, evacuated his family to Texas.

"We only had three feet of water in our house but the mold ate the house up. We will return as soon as our house gets back," Sanyika said of his eastern New Orleans home.

'"Encourage people to come back home," he said.

CC Campbell-Rock, a native New Orfeanian, veteran journalist and Katrina evacuee, is the editor of the Bay View. Email her at campbellrock [at] sfbayview [dot] com.