Despite shutdown, work to resume this week on the long-stalled Mall flood-control project


One of two concrete forms is seen on the 17th Street levee project in this May 2013 file photo. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Monday that work will resume this week on the stalled 17th Street Levee project on the Mall despite the government shutdown.

Five years in the making, and two years behind schedule, the flood-control project was suspended about six months ago; the corps fired the main contractor in April.

The $4.5 million project is 75 to 80 percent complete but has been an eyesore, with a sidewalk closed on 17th Street just west of the Washington Monument amid a stark construction landscape.

The area is one of the most heavily trafficked and sensitive areas on the Mall, where throngs of tourists visit the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool each year.

For months now, visitors have passed a site marked by two unfinished concrete barriers on weedy plots of bare dirt, cordoned off with stockade fencing.

A wall on the Mall

But last week, the corps announced that a new construction firm had been hired to finish the job and Monday a corps spokeswoman said that pre-construction meetings were scheduled to begin Wednesday.

“We are thrilled that this agreement was made,” Col. Trey Jordan, the corps’ Baltimore district commander, said in a statement. “We look forward to getting back to the important job of reducing the risk of flooding to downtown Washington, D.C.”

The project can move forward because it had been previously funded, the corps said.

It calls for the construction of reinforced berms, the concrete walls and a temporary “post-and-panel” structure to keep floodwaters from flowing north on 17th Street from the Tidal Basin.

The post-and-panel structure will consist of nine-foot-tall metal posts that, in the event of a flood, would be moved by a crane into six receptacles that have been dug across 17th Street. Aluminum panels would then be slid between the posts to form a barrier.

Once installed, the barrier would connect to the concrete walls and berms on either side of 17th Street.

The berms are mostly finished. So are the concrete barriers. But the barriers lack their decorative cladding, and the panels have not been fabricated.

On April 26, the corps fired Hirani Engineering and Land Surveying of Jericho, N.Y., after work on the project stalled. The contract was awarded to Hirani on Sept. 16, 2010.

Andrea Takash, a corps spokeswoman, said Monday that she did not know why Hirani was unable to complete the work. The corps had paid Hirani $3.3 million for work it had completed.

Akima Construction Services, the new contractor, is based in the region. Takash said the company will be paid $1.2 million to finish the project, which was originally slated to be finished in summer 2011.

The project is the result of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s nationwide review of flood-zone maps following the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought in New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast in 2005.

When FEMA reviewed the District’s flood zones, it concluded that the usual plans to use sandbags and Jersey barriers to prevent potential floodwaters from flowing north on 17th Street were inadequate.

FEMA foresaw a scenario, albeit remote, in which a flood could inundate a huge crescent of downtown Washington from 17th Street and Constitution Avenue east to the Capitol and south toward Fort McNair.

It proposed placing the area — including Federal Triangle, the east end of the Mall and several Smithsonian museums — in the 100-year flood zone unless a better flood-prevention system was devised.

The new zone could have required property owners to buy expensive flood insurance, officials said. The levee was designed to satisfy FEMA and avoid that.

But some considered it a visual intrusion on the sacred expanse of the Mall. “I regret that, however minor, any structure is on this land,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said when the project was announced.

“The notion of breaking this landscape is really heartbreaking to me and should be to all who value what the Mall stands for,” she said. “But . . . there was nothing else to do.”

The levee is expected to be finished next summer, at which point it will be turned over to the National Park Service.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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