December 21st and 29 million reasons to worry
It seeming that the storm on December 21, 2006 was a bigger deal than it even seemed at the time. So far, we know:
- the level of the London Avenue canal got within five inches of the Safe Water Level, which is depth of water above which a levee breach could be imminent. Corps of Engineers personnel in station 3 (in a most unofficial, ad hoc role) were preparing to strongly request that the Sewerage and Water Board shut down pumps in station 3 if the level had hit the Safe Water Level at the weakest section of the canal, about 4000 feet north of station 3.
Now, we have heard that none other than Colonel Jeff Bedey himself was in pump station 6 on the 17th St. canal during the December 21st storm. He dropped this bombshell at this past Wednesday's Jefferson Parish Council meeting. Col. Bedey is the head of the Hurricane Protection Office here in New Orleans, and has about 130 people working for him in that office. Theoretically, he is one of the most powerful people in the Corps' New Orleans District, with the power to hand out multimillion dollar contracts, like this $150 million whopper with a remarkably undefined scope. There's some more detail in this article from the Salem News of Salem, MA.
Now Army colonels do not just drop by pump stations during rainstorms out of curiosity or to simply observe operations. He could have been anywhere else that day, and he could have sent someone else to observe. No, he was there for a reason. Based on what we know about London Avenue, it's clear that the reason is concern about the walls of the outfall canals. He was worried the water would get too high on the walls and cause a breach. And when one considers that no one in the Army moves without orders, it's very likely people higher up than him in Vicksburg and at the Washington headquarters of the Corps also had a keen interest in what was happening on December 21. Considering the number of hits I've gotten from people in Corps HQ over the last few days since my London Avenue canal post went up, I don't think I'm wrong.
At this time, I think it's about time to ask a question I've asked before: what happened to the $29 million meant to stabilize the canal walls? Yes, instead of freaking out in the pump stations the Corps guys could have been relaxing at home.
Back in January, '06, when the Corps wrote the Project Information Report that laid out the scope of work and budgeting for the floodgates at the lake, they also included $29 million in "Bank Stabilization" contracts, meant to shore up the walls of all three outfall canals. The reasons for those contracts given in the report are the exact same reasons for Colonel Bedey's worry: without the walls being repaired, the canals can't flow as much water as they did before the storm.
The description of exactly what needed to be done was on page 10, while the budgeting was on page 18. 17th Street canal was to get $6.6 million, Orleans Avenue canal was to get $4.7 million, and London Avenue canal was to get $17.9 million. Presumably, this money was appropriated to the Corps in the third Katrina Supplemental, which funded all of the post-Katrina emergency levee and flood protection system repairs, including the construction of the floodgates. But the Bank Stabilization contracts never happened. What happened to the money? And if those contracts had been performed, would we be much safer now than we are?
I don't have the answer to the first one, but the Corps does. But the answer to the second one is unquestionably yes. We would not have insanely low levels of water allowed in these canals - levels which threaten the pumping capacity of pump stations which have performed admirably for over a century in keeping this city dry. Instead, pump operators would be able to pump as hard as they wanted for as long as they wanted.
So now we have the Corps - including senior military and engineering officials - doing who knows what (apparently without written procedures or a legal framework for their presence) in locally controlled and funded pump stations during every rainstorm, watching level gauge readouts and fretting about whether the walls will give again, this time just from the rain. Why have they not simply fixed the problem?
See my June 11, 2007 post, "Testing, testing," for the most up to date information on the London Avenue canal testing. The Engineering News-Record articles linked there are far better than the Times-Picayune's pathetic coverage. [end update]