The world's fourth largest supercomputer can't be wrong, can it?
Some fun has been playing out on the editorial page of the Times-Picayune the last few days. It started with a December 19th editorial about the Corps of Engineers' December 15th report on closing the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO).
The editorial was hardly incendiary. It expressed fairly well what the local sentiments have been surrounding the closure of the channel, which is widely blamed for extensive flooding in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, mainly through loss of wetlands (long term effect) and the creation of a shortcut for storm surge (extremely short term, tragic effect). It was no more controversial and than any other editorial the T-P publishes.
Then last Friday, a day after the big rains hit New Orleans and the surrounding areas, the following letter was published at the top of the Letters to the Editor page. I'm reprinting it in its entirety.
Experts, big computer clear MR-GO, corps says
Friday, December 22, 2006
Re: "Too slow on MR-GO," Our Opinions, Dec. 19.
The Times-Picayune asserts that "The Army Corps of Engineers failed to address the role the MR-GO played in increasing the height and velocity of storm surge from Hurricane Katrina, despite the compelling case made by scientists."
I don't know what "scientists" the editorial was referring to, but the corps' hydrologists, meteorologists, oceanographers and engineers tested scale models of the Katrina wave surge, entered wave data into the world's fourth-largest supercomputer and concluded that the MR-GO was insignificant in the storm's water surge.
The Times-Picayune gave no consideration to the corps' publicly available facts, and accepted information from others who didn't merit mentioning.
The editorial claims that the corps is "the same agency that refused for months to acknowledge engineering failures in the flood protection system it built." For the record, the Army Corps of Engineers is not an agency, but on the topic of accepting responsibility, the Chief of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, accepted full responsibility in June. Gen. Strock waited until June for the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force investigation results, so he could base his statement on facts.
The Times-Picayune asserted that "the corps wants to act like MR-GO is just a bad investment instead of admitting that it is a killer." The burden of proof is on The Times-Picayune to establish that the MR-GO is a killer, which the newspaper has not done.
Furthermore, financial reasons were just one justification for closure of many parts of the MR-GO.
The Times-Picayune cravenly associated itself with Sen. David Vitter's opinion that appropriations enacted by Congress provided the corps funding and authority to close MR-GO. The $75 million is for continual operations, with a small part going to funding research on the MR-GO closure options -- not the authority to close.
When The Times-Picayune, the paper of record for New Orleans, writes reckless editorials, it is difficult for the public to develop balanced opinions about our service. New Orleans needs better record-keeping.
Deputy Public Affairs Officer
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
New Orleans District
I've followed the "debate" over closure of MR-GO very carefully since the storm, and even before it. Its a debate in which everyone and their brother (all the way up to the Governor) says, "close it," except for the Corps and a handfull of businesses along the waterway. I'm certainly no expert, so I'm not going to pass judgement on the assertions by Mr. Harris. However, the tone is just eye-popping in its chutzpah, and its no surprise the T-P put it at the top of the Letters column.
Senator Vitter's office received numerous calls of apology from upper-ups at the Corps the same day the letter was published, justifiably so. It takes some moxie to call the simple act of agreeing with a U.S. Senator "craven," unless that Senator is, I don't know, Joe McCarthy. Apparently Mr. Harris was expressing his personal opinion when he composed his letter, and then made the mistake of signing it as if he were representing the Corps' official position.
As far as the Times-Picayune's position as the paper of record for New Orleans, I'd like to ask Mr. Harris how many Pulitzer Prizes the Corps of Engineers has won?
There have been three responses published since Friday. Here they are linked with excerpted quotes:
12/23: Corps damaging the scant credibility it has left
"I suppose there may be some folks left on earth who believe that MR-GO did not permit the unfettered surge that swamped St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans, but if so, they all work for the Corps of Engineers."
12/26 (2 letters): Even a big computer will say to close MR-GO
"Given correct data and asked appropriate questions, even the fourth-largest supercomputer on the planet will confirm that a healthy, strong coast is the foundation to sustainable hurricane protection for southeast Louisiana. And the cornerstone to restoring our coast below New Orleans is closing the MR-GO."
So we can't criticize the Corps?
"Vic Harris, deputy communications director of the Army Corps of Engineers, seems to be the embodiment of the arrogant weisenheimer attitude of the corps."
I'll update this post if there are any other letters published by the T-P. And just for reference, here's a list of the top 10 supercomputers in the world, as of last month.
Three more letters today:
12/27: Agency has earned distrust
"The corps should just shut up and work hard to gain our trust back. Maybe the fourth-largest supercomputer could fill a hole in the levee design, or at least give the corps a clue."
12/27: A typical federal spin job
"The burden of proof is on the federal government's shoulders. They have to prove that their huge, poorly conceived ditch, which leads directly to the Gulf of Mexico and through the path of Katrina's death and destruction in St. Bernard and Orleans parishes, is not the major cause of that death and destruction."
12/27: Corps' image already bruised
"The public has already decided for itself about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and any kind of "balanced opinion" went out of the window during the levee breaches. The people of New Orleans and the surrounding area will never again trust the corps with our lives as blindly as we once did. Every project, every missed deadline, every safety violation is being watched and questioned."
12/28: Corps should close MR-GO, apologize for failure
"This is not the first time that corps planning has gone awry. The levees and floodwalls that failed New Orleans are a stunning testament to that fact. The Government Accountability Office also testified to Congress in March that a number of recent corps studies were so flawed that they "did not provide a reasonable basis for decision-making." The studies reviewed by GAO "were fraught with errors, mistakes, and miscalculations and used invalid assumptions and outdated data." (GAO-06-529T, available at www.gao.gov ).
Instead of calling The Times-Picayune "craven" and "reckless" for demanding a real plan to close the MR-GO, the corps should be doing all it can to put an end to the danger posed by the corps-built outlet. An apology for the corps' dreadful failures in New Orleans would also be in order."
12/31: Close MR-GO and pay up
"The deep draft channel MR-GO, designed, built and maintained by the corps has brought nothing but heartache, destruction and death to eastern Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes. The corps should have done the right thing many years ago, when experts warned that building MR-GO would cause saltwater intrusion."
1/2: Report reveals corps' agenda
"A case can easily be made to show that the failure of the MR-GO was a direct reason St. Bernard Parish flooded. Thousands of lives were directly affected by the corps' incompetence. Whole communities have been uprooted. How long will this foolishness continue? How many studies do we need to point out the obvious? Do we really have to wait until the corps' report to Congress in December 2007 to be told what thousands of people in St. Bernard have been saying for decades?"
1/13: Corps should quit inventing excuses, do its job
"The question Mr. Harris asked focuses on a straw man -- the claim that MR-GO was an exclusive conduit for storm surge. What he ignores is the leading role MR-GO has played in destroying much of our area's wetlands buffer over the past decades. It doesn't take a supercomputer, only a trip to St. Bernard Parish, to understand the channel's destruction of tens of thousands of acres of coastal wetlands and what that produced in Katrina -- devastating storm surge reaching heavily populated areas."
- U.S. Senator David Vitter