Report Examines Path to Failed New Orleans Levees
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
The levee system that was designed to protect New Orleans, but failed catastrophically during Hurricane Katrina, was completed under severe financial and political pressure, including opposition from local officials and environmentalists, according to a federally sponsored report set to be released today.
The study commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers details how Corps officials facing budget pressures cut millions from the construction of key flood walls by shrinking their support pilings. Under pressure from rising waters during Katrina, those walls toppled, causing much of the city flooding.
According to the report, the Corps also pressed ahead with the plan authorized by Congress in 1965, even after later information about potential hurricane dangers indicated that the system provided less protection than promised.
"There was a general sense that what was being built wasn't up to snuff," said Leonard A. Shabman, a resident scholar at Resources for the Future, an environmental think tank. But Corps and local officials "were basically saying there is a budget cap and we are going to build what we can with that." Shabman co-authored the report with Douglas Woolley from Radford University.
The report essentially completes the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to determine what caused the catastrophic flooding of the New Orleans area in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
A previous Corps study exhaustively laid out how the hurricane defenses failed in Katrina. The report being released today is designed to examine why the hurricane defenses were built the way they were.
The new study probably will not end the debates over the Corps' responsibility for the flood. Those issues underlie tens of thousands of legal complaints by New Orleans homeowners against the federal agency.
The report's authors pointedly stop short of blaming any particular set of Corps decisions for the disaster, even while highlighting some of the thousands that were made leading up to it.
"We did not attempt to point the finger of blame individually or institutionally," Woolley said.
The report depicts the hurricane protection project as a troubled bureaucratic behemoth -- a product of Congress, the Corps and the local levee boards, which were responsible for 30 percent of the project's cost.
Authorized by Congress in 1965, the system of levees and flood barriers was envisioned by engineers as a project that could provide protection against the storm surge from virtually any hurricane.
Hurricane Camille in 1969 quickly destroyed that illusion. Though it did not strike New Orleans directly, Camille showed that a Gulf hurricane could be more powerful than scientists had thought, according to the report.