Hurricane Season Begins June 1: Will the Levees be Ready?

C.C. Campbell-Rock
Date Published: 
May 3, 2006


The scathing report this week released by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and, Governmental Affairs, "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared," FEMA's closure of its New Orleans Field Office, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's new Hurricane Emergency Plan, President George W. Bush's $106.5 billion Emergency Supplemental Spending proposal and the latest forecast for the 2006 Hurricane Season this week pushed the natural disaster, Katrina, and the man-made disaster, post¬Katrina, back into the spotlight.

A lively national debate on Capitol Hill and across the nation on the fate of the Gulf Coast and the readiness of governments continued to spin out promises of bette handling of such disasters, with Hurricane Season 200€ just a month away. Hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

Colorado State University's scientists William M. Gray and Philip J. Klotzbach released their predictions for thE 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, which they say will again be very active. "However, there should be fewer land falling major hurricanes in the United States as was experienced in 2004 and 2005."

Gray says, "Information obtained through March 2006 continues to indicate that the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season will be much more active than the average 1950-2000 season. We estimate that 2006 will have about nine hurricanes, 17 named storms, 85 named storm days, 45 hurricane days, five intense (Category 3-4-5) hurricanes and 13


intense hurricanes. The probability of U.S. major hurricane landfall is estimated to be about 55 percent above the long-period average."

The scientists say that the Gulf Coast and Florida panhandle have a 47 percent probability of seeing a major hurricane making landfall.

"Will the levees be ready for another Katrina," however, is a question that has yet to be fully vetted.

"Under its Task Force Guardian initiative, the Corps is racing to finish $798 million of repairs to 169 miles of all-important earthen, steel and concrete flood barriers, most of which were built in the 19605," an Associated Press report offered.

"More than $4 billion of major long-term improvements are being planned, but Washington has yet to approve the funding and the first stage is not slated to be done until September 2007."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USACE, the federal agency tasked with the major repairs of the levees, offered a more optimistic view recently than it had in its first preliminary report.

In the first report, the agency concluded, "Although USACE improvements to the flood control system will make Orleans Parish safer than it was before the storms, they will not eliminate the potential for flooding. In fact, based on analyses recently completed by the USACE, the flood control system will not meet the standards necessary for providing protection against the 1-percent-annual-chance (100-year) flood, which is also referred to as the base flood."

More recently, though, the USACE announced, "Restoration of the damaged hurricane protection system is more than 70 percent complete and progressing rapidly. The agency noted that work on the levees, where four breaches and numerous leaks occurred, was ongoing. On the Orleans East Bank, work is 54 percent complete, Inner Harbor Navigation Channel, 84 percent, New Orleans East, 77 percent, St. Bernard, 88 percent, Plaquemines, 83 percent.

Obviously, the Corps has been working diligently to complete the temporary protection of the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. While admirable, there remains a deep concern about the design and structure of the levees and the USACE timeline for permanent


protection of the "metro bowl" called New Orleans.

By its own estimates, the Corps' projected timeline for the restoration and improvement of the New Orleans¬area levee system is

I June 1, 2006: Damaged portions of the system restored to pre-Katrina level of protection;

I September 2007: Completion of restoration of undamaged and subsided areas, completion of previously unconstructed portions of authorized projects to originally authorized design height; and

I December 2007: Completion of final technical report that analyzes higher levels of protection (Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Report).

Additionally, the levees won't be certified for another four years. The USACE targets 2010 for certification of the levees' flood protection as meeting National Flood Insurance Programs' 100-year protection level, as well as additional improvements, such as permanent closure and pumping stations at the outfall canals, navigable floodgates to protect the Industrial Canal, storm

proofing of existing pump stations, selective armoring of levees, incorporating a portion of non·federallevee in Plaquemines Parish and ecosystem restoration.

Not only do these plans negate the possibility that New Orleans will be prepared for another Category 5 Hurricane like Katrina, but the USACE freely admits, on its website, that the restoration project consists of bringing the levees back to pre-Katrina levels.

Sen. Barack Obama's comments about FEMA and the USACE could also apply to the agencies' decision to build the levees back to pre-Katrina levels.

In weighing in during a Senate debate over the president's $106.5 billion Emergency Supplemental Spending Budget, Obama noted that in spite of new laws and directives prohibiting the awarding of no-bid contracts, post-emergency, that "FEMA said in March it was not going to re·bid the contracts," and "The Army Corps of Engineers missed an opportunity to re-bid contracts."

"The definition of insanity," Obama continued, "is doing the same thing over and over."

Also, it appears that the USACE has claimed not to know much about the reasons for the breaches and


maintained that its data about levee designs and hurricane intensity were current.

In a report, the Interagency Performance Evaluation Team (IPET) Study Report, the USACE said the 17th Street Canal breach was unexpected, a fact challenged by the National Science Foundation sponsored Independent Levee Inspection Team (lUT), wherein Dr. Raymond B. Seed and Dr. Robert G. Bea took issue with the IPET's assertion.

The ILiT scientists referenced a test conducted prior to the construction of the 17th Street Canal, a test which, according to Dr. Seed and Dr. Bea, foreshadowed the catastrophic failure at the breach site. They say a Corps field test of a levee and sheetpile-supported f100dwall in 1985, just south of Morgan City, Louisiana, predicted exactly the sort of failure that occurred at the 17th Street Canal

The ILiT stated that the Corps of Engineers had a "masterful knowledge and understanding of the complex and challenging geology of this region in the 1950s" and "should not claim that the weak foundation soil strata at the 17th Street Canal breach site were unexpected, and that no prior publications would have disclosed this possibility."

Moreover, one report observed that the levee protective system is a "piecemeal" assemblage of elements that "evolved over a long period of time."

By contrast, a proper system "would integrate components and ... would contain a level of redundancy sufficient that, if a levee failed, all would not be lost."

The most damning indictment of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' ineptness was contained in "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared," the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs report released this week.

In a detailed review of the levee design and structure, the report traced the construction of the levee protection system back to 1965, a project that remains incomplete today, 41 years later.

"The Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project (Lake Pontchartrain Project) was authorized in the Flood Control Act of 1965 to provide hurricane protection to areas around Lake Pontchartrain in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Charles


Parishes. The total project called for the design and construction of approximately 125 miles of levees and floodwalls. arts of the system were built at different times and involved the review and cooperation of different local levee districts. Quite often, this resulted in non-uniform junctions. Scientists examining these 'transition points' found inconsistencies in crest heights, types of protective structures and materials used. In some places, floodwalls stood at a higher elevation than did an adjoining earthen levee, which concentrated the flow of water to the dissimilar intersection, 'causing turbulence that resulted in erosion of the weaker levee soil.' ...

"Enhanced protection

"Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophic storm that exceeded the design limits of parts of the levee system. Nevertheless, some portion of the flooding that occurred could have been lessened had the levees themselves not been eroded - and ultimately breached - by overtopping. . .. As noted in one report:

'''A fundamental flaw in the f1oodwaJ/s and levees is that they include no means of accommodating overtopping that does not inflict major damage or destruction .... Most of the 350 miles of levees in New Orleans are unprotected from devastating damage and potentially total destruction if overtopped.

"'The question is not whether the levees will again be overtopped but when and by how much they will be overtopped.' ...

"As Dr. Raymond Seed testified before the Committee during a public hearing:

"'No one is in charge. You have got multiple agencies, multiple organizations, some of whom aren't on speaking terms with each other, sharing responsibilities for public safety. . ..

"Levees in the New Orleans area are at different heights. You can stand - we have a photograph in our report at one section where you can clearly see five different elevations, all within 100 yards of each other.

"(S)urveyors, engineers, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans evaluated the levees and structures built and in use with vertical heights that had not been calibrated or checked for several years."


The report's chapter on "Who is Responsible for the Levees" concluded with a blow to the gut: "As a result, it appears that the levees were not built and maintained at the proper level above sea level.

"Since the level of protection that the levees provide is so closely related to their height above sea level, and thus their ability to block increased water levels driven by hurricanes, the failure to build and maintain the levees at the proper elevation diminished the level of protection they would provide."

In view of the report, another question arises, "Will building the levees back to pre-Katrina levels protect the citizens of New Orleans from a major hurricane?" Maybe the question will be answered during the 2006 Hurricane Season.

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