LONDON -- As we wait to see what effect Isaac will have on the Army Corps of Engineers $10 billion-plus "hurricane risk reduction system" in New Orleans, I can't help thinking about last week's news release from the activist group levees.org. Attempting to find out the rationale behind the Corps' repeated assertions that local officials prevented it, pre-Katrina, from building a more robust system than the one that catastrophically collapsed in 2005, levees.org filed a FOIA request for supporting documents.
What had been on the public record up to then was an admission by Lt. Gen Strock, the only Corps official ever publicly to take responsibility for the disaster (just before he retired), that the allegation may have been based on nothing more than "something I heard." The Corps' response to the FOIA request was a recommendation by the local PR official for the agency to revisit a Corps-sponsored chronology of the doomed "protection system."
"Buried" in there, according to levees.org, was the story of the E99 test. That was a 1985 examination by the Corps of the efficacy of supporting so-called I-wall structures -- straight-line vertical floodwalls -- with sheets of metal driven 17 feet into the soil below. What the test showed was that at that depth, in the swampy soil of southern Louisiana, the I-wall leaned. The Corps chose to interpret that as good enough, and it was walls just like that, with sheetpile driven no deeper, that failed in 2005 (today, sheetpile under floodwalls is driven three or four times deeper).
The activist organization points out that the decision not to use deeper sheetpile saved the Corps $100 million. Of course, the resultant disaster ultimately cost the nation in direct federal money more than $120 billion.
The question that keeps recurring to me is: Was the Corps being evil? Or were they responding rationally to the pressures and incentives of a then-Republican administration dedicated to notions of small government and rooting out "waste, fraud and abuse"?
A profit-driven private sector, we know, has inherent incentives toward efficiency. "Lean and mean" is the goal. Sometimes, as we've seen in our broadcast industry, that has perverse results: tape-delayed Olympics coverage was profitable and efficient, delaying events until the maximum number of eyeballs was available. A similar drive accounts for the complaint aired on the TVNewser website today that network news departments are stretching to cover "two major news stories" -- the RNC and Isaac -- "simultaneously."
Government is, or is supposed to be, different. If efficiency means some people don't get to watch Olympics events live, no big deal. If slashing costs means that two simultaneous big news stories -- imagine that happening! -- don't get full coverage, there's always the Internet. But when government adopts efficiency as its top priority, decisions like the Corps' get made. And people die.
Inspectors general inside federal agencies do, and should, always keep an eye out for outrageous excesses of spending and shortages of judgment and oversight. But a federal government that sends the message to its agencies that nothing is more important than running like a business may end up with something leaner, and meaner, than we need.