THE BLOG

"Katrina" Plus Six

08/28/2011 05:37 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2011

NEW ORLEANS--So now we're at the six-year anniversary of the event which everyone calls Katrina, even though, as has been explicated in these pixels many times, the flooding of this city was, in the words of a co-author of one of the two independent investigations of the event, "the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl." Obviously, that was written before Fukushima, but, still, C'byl is heady company in which to find oneself.

What most people think they know is that, post-Katrina, "the levees have been fixed." And that could be said to be true. To get Clintonian for a moment, it all depends on what your definition of "fixed" is. In monetary terms, while somewhere near a billion dollars was spent on the system that catastrophically failed in 2005, killing thousands of people, the new system "completed" on June 1 of this year -- even though the US Army Corps of Engineers admits it's not really finished -- has cost upwards of eight billion dollars. So it's got to be eight times better.

It's bigger. The sheetpile -- metal panels that undergirded the concrete walls that sat atop the levees -- is now driven 64 feet into solid soil, instead of, as before, 17 feet down into swamp muck. The system of gates that now stride across the mouth of Lake Borgne is a billion-dollar construction job all by itself. (Of course, it costs a billion dollars to build a mile of LA freeway these days, which is one reason they're not building any more of those.)

But at the heart of the new system is a set of hydraulic pumps. If a hurricane near New Orleans is accompanied by lots of rain (these things are known to happen), the city's own, quite famous, pumps will move the rainwater to three "outfall" canals built for that purpose. From there, the water would normally flow into the adjacent Lake Ponchartrain. But the Corps' new system features gates that close off the lake from the canals to prevent storm surge water from entering the canals. (It was that storm surge that, though it reached nowhere near the tops of the floodwalls, precipitated the failure of those "protective" structures 6 years ago.) So the rainwater has to be pumped out of the canals into the lake.

Those new hydraulic pumps, according to a whistleblower inside the Army Corps of Engineers who supervised the testing and installation of the pumps, have design defects. Her finding, supported by an independent engineer reporting to the US Office of Special Counsel, is that those pumps will fail in a hurricane situation, leading the rainwater to rise in the canals above the new, low "safe" level, at which point the old defective floodwalls, never fixed, may fail again.

That's part of the story we tell in my film, The Big Uneasy, about the 2005 disaster and its aftermath. Here's what's happened lately: this spring, the Corps of Engineers, which has taken to calling those defective pumps "temporary" -- with a 5- to 7-year life span -- signed a $675 million contract with a bidder to provide new "permanent" pumps. They would, the Corps announced, be installed within three years.

Then, last month, the General Accountability Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- insisted that contract be invalidated. There were two reasons for the move: one, the Corps' successful bidder had just recently left the employ of... the Corps of Engineers, and was, according to the GAO, privy to information about the bid that he could successfully exploit to the detriment of competing bidders; and two, in the task of evaluating the bidder's technical capability to perform the contracted work, Corps officials had, according to the GAO, spent "less than five minutes." Less than five minutes. The OJ jury took longer than that.

Now, because of the quashing of that contract and the need to rebid the job, the Corps dolefully reports the project may be delayed by a year. So, the permanent pumps, by the Corps' usually optimistic schedule, will be installed at least two years after the expiration of the lifespan of the temporary pumps. Good luck with that.

Additionally, the levee authority responsible for looking over the Corps' shoulder on the West Bank of New Orleans says a Corps levee there seemed to contain a certain number of quite sizable logs -- strange for an agency which is cracking down on communities coast to coast for having any vegetation on their levees. And, an investigative committee of the American Association of University Professors, after a two-year inquiry, has concluded that Dr. Ivor van Heerden, who led one of the two independent investigations into the 2005 flood, was fired by Louisiana State University in retaliation for his public discussion of his team's findings, which were quite critical of -- the US Army Corps of Engineers.

One bright note to report in this update. The Corps, which had trademarked the slogan "Building Strong," has now taken to signing off its correspondence with the expanded slogan, "Building Strong and Taking Care of People!" (exclamation point theirs). Like the "hurricane protection system" which failed so catastrophically in 2005 that its very name has been expunged, the Corps's best handiwork appears to be in the engineering of words.