09/05/2008 03:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Orleans Exhales, Then Gasps Again

Gustav, as far as New Orleans was concerned, was not "the mother of all storms," in the latest immortal words of Mayor Ray Nagin, and as my friends and neighbors (the ones who didn't stay) make their way back into town, they're greeted today by another shoe dropping: the Times Picayune reports that the American Society of Civil Engineers has finally gotten around to critiquing the Army Corps' massive mea kinda culpa regarding the Katrina flooding.

I say "finally" because the Army Corps' report, still incomplete, was first released in June 2006. But, hey, what's the big urgency?

Well, according to the ASCE response, plenty.

For instance, the civil engineers said the corps did not go far enough in addressing the inadequate design of floodwalls along the 17th Street and London Avenue canals. The corps had blamed the failure of those floodwalls partly on the "complex and challenging" geological conditions in which they were built.

"While a massive hurricane does create a 'complex and challenging environment,' engineers routinely are expected to design for such conditions," they said, and such an environment "in no way mitigates the inadequacy of the design."

The engineers also criticized the report for soft-pedaling the role of surge overtopping and the use of erosion-prone fill from nearby swamps in the failure of earthen levees.

And while the report concludes the levees did not perform as a system, "it does not speak to the fact that it was never designed or managed as a system."

But wait, there's more...

"Protecting hundreds of thousands of people living in urban areas that are at or below sea level such as New Orleans" should be given more emphasis than protecting smaller towns or open farmland, they wrote.

The engineers also were disappointed the report did not mention "the role and importance of external peer review in future projects."

The report's risk analysis results "provide a sobering reminder of the potential impacts of an enormous hurricane on the New Orleans area, and of the hazards posed to residents," the engineers said.

But the risks outlined for people and property behind levees in New Orleans should be placed in a larger context, such as existing international standards for dams, which are much more stringent.

Dams normally protect open land, often sparsely settled. Levees protect major population centers. Who decides that, in this country, the safety factor for the former (following international standards) is "much more stringent" than for the latter?

A couple of very prominent Senators currently running for president might want to consider these matters when they arrive in Oxford, Mississippi in three weeks for their first debate....