One part is the Corps' New Orleans District's moronic decision - yes, decision - to not fix the outfall canal walls, instead putting up the floodgates. The walls were supposed to protect against storm surge, and they were only put up within the last fifteen years. Why could they not be made to work now? It's hardly rocket science. After all, since Katrina the Corps has reinforced or improved walls and levees along the Duncan Canal in Kenner, along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway by the NASA-Michoud site, and at plenty of other places around the region. Why were the walls along the outfall canals any different?
I'm really not sure of the "why." But I am sure of where we are: no wall improvements in the near future, and possibly ever. This has deep consequences, some of which we've already seen (pumps at PS#3 getting turned off twice in the last five months for one). Nearly everything that is a problem with post-Katrina drainage and flood protection in New Orleans (on the east bank, west of the industrial canal) can be traced back to the Corps' foolish, foolish pair of decisions to go with the floodgates, and to not repair the walls. This post talks about the consequences of, and possible reasoning behind, those decisions, and where we are as a result.
Let's start with evidence backing up my premise that the walls won't be repaired...
Evidence the walls will not be touched
Of course, the plain evidence (which the Corps always tells us to ignore, but which my gut tells me is right) is right there. There has been no work on the outfall canal walls outside of the breached and heavily damaged areas since the storm. Whenever I tell this to someone from outside the region, they seem amazed.
There was also this April 25, 2007 story from WWL-TV, in which Corps Protection and Restoration Office Chief Tom Podany is quoted as telling the Jefferson Parish council that the west walls of the 17th Street canal "meet all the requirements we have." Remarkably (or perhaps not, when you consider the sub-par caliber of their recent Corps coverage), the Times-Picayune devoted nothing to this story until Senator Vitter let the Corps know such statements are way out of bounds, since the canal walls are part of the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity project, and are thus required to work as designed, no matter what malarkey the Corps builds at the lakefront. His letter can be found here, and the Times-Picayune's story is here.
Then there's the other story from the April 13, 2007 Times-Picayune about the west walls on the 17th Street canal, in which the Corps "revealed" that the sheet piles on the west side are very short, but still expressed strong confidence in their floodworthiness. I put revealed in quotes, because that particular article is so poorly composed, and full of such inconsistencies, that I am convinced it should have never been written in the first place. It will be subject of a future post about what happens when bad stories happen to worse writers. But it's still helpful in revealing the Corps' feelings about the walls, which are that the walls are just fine. The April 13th article also mentioned the delivery of the Corps' study of the walls' stability by the end of April. We're still waiting. Finally that article mentioned finishing emergency repairs on the east side of the 17th Street canal by June 1. Those repairs were first announced April 3, 2007, in another Times-Picayune article which included the usual head-patting from the Corps.
That work just started in the last few days, but my reaction is: Huh? I thought the walls were fine. That's what we've been told for over a year. Another reaction is: why did it take over 21 months, if the job can apparently be accomplished in two weeks (I sincerely doubt this is a comprehensive fix, especially since the area covered is so small), and what does that say about the condition of the walls in those spots up until now? It seems the Corps is talking out both sides of its mouth, which certainly doesn't breed trust. At the very least, there's been a serious lack of urgency. Why wasn't this work done before last hurricane season?
As far as the present condition of the walls along the 17th Street canal, we can now know a bit more about that.
On May 24, 2007, the Times-Picayune reported on the release of a Corps study of the 17th Street canal. The study looked at how stable the walls are under various pumping and lake stage scenarios. They looked at the envelope between practically no flow to maximum output from all three pump stations (PS#6, I-10, and Jefferson Parish's tiny Canal St. station). They also looked at the envelope of the lake level from 0 feet to 5 feet, in one foot increments.
They found that the six foot safe water level can be justified, though the water rises dangerously close to it in certain regions of the canal under many circumstances. Those regions (near I-10 and Veterans) are the ones that got the emergency repairs mentioned in the April 3, 2007 article.
Well, I have received a large chunk of that report, and now everyone can read it for themselves. You'll find the first 58 pages of the report here. The Appendix, which contains the raw data, a May 2006 inspection report, a fascinating November 2005 Linfield Hunter & Junius internal memo, and more good stuff is here (warning: over 80 megs). The rest, which includes the actual analysis, should be forthcoming soon.
[Update within update, 6/1/2011
The complete report, including the back matter like the graphical output of the analyses, was placed on the Corps' nolaenvironmental.gov website as part of the IER#5 public comment period in June, 2009. It is still there. But just in case it disappears, here it is for posterity.]
There's lots to take away from the report. Here's a few of my impressions.
1) The sections of the east wall immediately adjacent to the breach are among the weakest in the whole canal.
2) The Corps' method of calculation for all the governing Safe Water Levels (the Method of Planes) was superceded by Corps HQ shortly before the study was issued by something called the Spencer Method. They say they will go back and redo the calc's using the newer authorized method, but there's no indication whether it would give different results. I'm no geotechnical engineer, so I have no idea whether this is significant or not.
3) There's no correlation between the various "reaches" into which the canal walls were broken for calculation purposes (there were about 16 on each side) and the placement of the depth sensors which are tied into the SCADA system (I think there's only five or six of them). I guess the Corps operations folks just watch the particular sensor nearest the weakest spots.
4) With the lake at five feet, the water gets above or gets within six inches of the governing safe water level near I-10 for total flows exceeding 7500 cfs. This means if the lake level gets close to five feet and the gates haven't been dropped, PS#6 will have to cut back on three of their big pumps. Of course, that's kind of moot, since there's not going to be more than 7500 cfs available with the gates down anyway (and most likely a lot less, due to failures of the MWI pumps).
With lake stages lower than five feet, it appears there is no significant need for pumping cutbacks at PS#6. However, the trigger for gate closure is six feet in the lake. And also, as noted above, these calculations are based on a now-outdated method. In addition, they rely on the Corps' ridiculously low safety factors. Combine all that, and there's more than enough uncertainty to make one believe that pumps will be cut back in extreme cases, whether the gates are up or down.
Overall, however, the report appears to present mostly good news. However, it's important to note that there was no outside review of this report before its compilation, and there were no outside resources utilized by the Corps. This is unfortunately still the norm.
However, now that the report is public, researchers and scientists outside the Corps can now critique it.
So it's pretty clear that the Corps New Orleans District, which has had 21 months to do something with the walls, has chosen to do nothing (excepting some minor patching). Why? According to them, it's because the floodgates are there, and they "take the walls out of the equation."
Out of the equation?
When asked about the walls, the Corps says, "Don't worry, the floodgates take the walls out of the equation." Podany said it in that Jefferson Parish Council meeting:
"'Because we have that temporary gate at the lake, those walls don’t need to function during a storm,' said Podany."
They said it in the April 13th T-P article:
"'We've done the analyses, and the results convince us that underseepage wouldn't cause the walls to fail anywhere in the 17th Street Canal because of the steps we're taking, which includes limiting the amount of water in the canal,' said Walter Baumy, chief engineer of the corps' New Orleans district."
They said the same thing as recently as May 9 in the Times-Picayune, at the end of the long overdue article about everything the Corps has done wrong since Katrina:
"Despite the weak spots, Bedey said, the corps has been successful in dramatically reducing the risk from storm surge in a number of locations, compared with before Katrina. That includes the installation of gates on the 17th Street and London and Orleans avenue canals, which will eliminate the threat to flood walls along the canals. Problem pumps designed to move rainwater in the canals over the gates into Lake Pontchartrain have been repaired and successfully tested at the 17th Street and London Avenue canals, Bedey said, and are expected to be repaired and tested at the Orleans Avenue canal by June 1."
That's nuts. All these statements rest on the giant, unstated assumption that the gates and floodgate pumps will work as designed. To no one's surprise, I have serious doubts about that assumption, and so do many within the Corps. As I pointed out in my last post, if the gates don't seat properly in the trenches, they'll probably fail. If the gates' hydraulic winching mechanism doesn't work, and the winds are too high for a crane (i.e. over 30 mph), they won't close. There are plenty of ways for this system to fail. We also know that the MWI pumps and drive units have deep problems.
In addition, the walls see water all the time from normal rainstorms when the gates aren't down. The gates most definitely do not take the walls out of the equation, unless the equation only counts tropical storms in which the gates don't fail (more about gate failure below). Otherwise, the walls are very much in the equation. This knocks out a central premise in the construction of the floodgates, forcing the Corps to retreat...
The Corps has a "system" to save the walls, and drown us
When the fallacy of the "walls are out of the equation" is pointed out, then the Corps says, "Don't worry, we have a system to keep the walls from seeing too much water during a rainstorm." In point of fact, they have no such system. They have a system for monitoring the water level in the outfall canals during a rainstorm, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. That system is a set of electronic level gauges installed along each canal which is connected to a few computer terminals scattered around the city, including within the three pump stations at the southern end of each outfall canal. Surprisingly, the T-P actually described the system correctly in their sloppy wet kiss to the Corps on March 25, 2007 (keep in mind, the following describes what happens with the gates closed, not during a non-tropical system):
"...The canals themselves have been lined with a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, or SCADA, system that uses sensors to transmit a wealth of information via computer screens, including changes in water levels along the length of all canals.
It is the SCADA [system screens] inside the pump stations that canal captains will monitor as they synchronize the pumps near the gates and the bigger city pumps situated hundreds of yards -- sometimes a mile or more -- closer to the heart of the city.
With the gates closed against a surge, city operators must power down their stronger pumps to keep from overwhelming the lower capacity of the dozens of pumps set up at the mouths of the outfall canals. It is the pump operators who will make adjustments in response to information the canal captains collect from SCADA readings, Wagenaar said.
So critical is SCADA to protection of the canals that there are special backup generators in the pump houses just to keep the data system running. In addition, fiber optic cables backed up by a microwave system have been installed to keep SCADA data flowing as long as possible to pump stations and to the corps' riverfront headquarters and emergency bunker."
What's notable is that - other than this article - it is rare that the distinction between monitoring and control is actually made, especially when the Corps' New Orleans District is quoted directly. It is an important distinction, and its omission is typical of the self-aggrandizing puffery the N.O. District has adopted as an unbreakable habit. The Corps doesn't control anything outside the gates, but they act like they do.
During any rainstorm, including non-tropical ones, if the water level gets too high in any of the outfall canals as it is being pumped out of the city (that is, above the Safe Water Level - or SWL - for each canal: eight feet at Orleans Avenue, six feet at 17th Street, or a measly four feet at London Avenue), then there are only two solutions to avoid another breach:
1) Lower the level of water the city's pumps must push against from the lake. That is, the Corps shuts the floodgates and turns on the floodgate pumps. God help us.
2) Limit the amount of water going in the canals. That is, the Corps tells the Sewerage & Water Board, a local agency over which they have no official jurisdiction, to turn off the city's drainage pumps for the specific canal for which the SWL has been exceeded. This has already happened twice, on December 30, 2006 and May 4, 2007.
That's the "system." Force the city to drown itself to save the walls. Talk about bass-ackwards. So the unfixed walls are not only a problem not remedied by the floodgates, their unrepaired state is actually driving decisions on flood protection. The walls still loom very large.
What if the gates fail?
In choosing to spend over $200 million in construction, repairing, changing, and expansion of the floodgates and pumps, the Corps deliberately left fixing the walls in some fuzzy future. They cast their entire lot with the floodgates, as the quotes above show. But what if the gates don't work?
Such an idea - despite all the evidence that the New Orleans District and its mostly locally-based consultants can't be trusted to design a block of wood - still seems anathema to almost everyone. But think about it. This same crew was trusted for 40 years to do the right thing, to follow their own rules, and they failed to do so. They even decided - decided! - to construct the levees and floodwalls to improper benchmarks, resulting in shortfalls of two feet when one compares actual heights to design heights! Now, we are supposed to believe that structures conceived and designed during the same time the Corps was denying responsibility for Katrina's devastation (from September to December of 2005) are going to be stronger than anything else they've ever put out there? We're supposed to believe that - despite a documented history of non-functionality for over a year - the MWI pumps are all of sudden going to be better than sliced bread? We're supposed to believe that the same bunch that allowed the trenches at the gates to be filled and sealed with two feet of grout during the height of the 2006 hurricane season somehow now knows their ass from their elbow? No, there's been too much wrong with all of this to believe it can work. And if the gates don't work, then we're back to relying on the walls - the same walls that are known to be underdesigned and poorly constructed.
So what if all that money had instead been applied to fixing the walls? Could it have been possible? Would New Orleans have been safe during 2006? Maybe, maybe not. But to not even consider fixing errors which have been reported very widely and have been analyzed by at least three teams (IPET, Cal-Berkeley, Team Louisiana), is absolutely nuts. Heck, Team Louisiana's report even tells the Corps exactly how deep the sheet piling needs to be along London Avenue. The design work is already done.
How the floodgates - combined with New Orleans District incompetence - have made things worse in new and innovative ways
There are other real consequences to these really bad decisions. Let's look at one in particular.
In the floodgate scheme, there is not enough pumping capacity at London Avenue and 17th Street to match the pre-Katrina drainage capacity (approximately 9300 cfs on 17th St and between 7000 and 8000 cfs on London Ave.). There never has been, and I don't think there ever will be. Let's look at that situation in a little more detail.
My assertion that there probably never will be enough pumping capacity doesn't come from thin air. The Corps says as much in Rev. 4 of the PIR, issued in October of 2006:
"Based on a cursory review by ERDC [the Corps' drainage gurus in Vicksburg], their belief is that large discharge capacities required at 17th Street and London Avenue may be difficult to achieve. This concern is based on a large number of pumps installed in a very small canal area with an erratic distribution of flow. A definite recommendation cannot be made at this time by ERDC."
I'd say we know the recommendation now, seven months after issuance of that report. The plain evidence is this: the Corps is spending $135 million to get pumping capacities up to levels that are still less than pre-storm values (about 7500 cfs at 17th St, and about 5000 cfs at London Ave). A lot of that money had to be routed through an extraordinary Air Force contracting instrument outside of normal Corps contracting procedures. Does anyone really think a similar, uniquely funded sum will be spent any time soon, considering how much has already been thrown down this hole? I'd say "that's all folks" on extra pumps. We're stuck with what we've got coming this summer, assuming they all work.
In addition, we've also got evidence that they've also unofficially put the kibosh on more pumps at 17th Street, as mentioned in a little noticed article in the Times-Picayune on May 6, 2007.
The article was about the townhouses which line the west side of the 17th Street canal floodgate site. They are collectively known as Mariner's Cove West, and are part of the Mariner's Cove development, which went up in the 1970's. Before Katrina, they were very valuable properties.
The Times-Picayune missed the entire point of the article, focusing on the homeowners and their high incomes. But Mariner's Cove West has been key to this entire pumps-and-gates story, without anyone noticing since the beginning.
Mariner's Cove West has actually been used by the Corps for over a year as an excuse NOT to expand pumping capacity at 17th Street. In Rev. 2 of the PIR, issued in May of 2006, the Corps laid out their case for adding about 4000 cfs of additional pumping flow at the 17th Street floodgates. Most of that flow in the Rev. 2 scheme (which was eventually mostly scrapped) would come from hydraulically-powered pumps along the west side of the canal. Why not put more pumps in along the east side?
"Adding capacity beyond the additional 4,000 cfs would require considerable additional rights-of-way. On the east side, sub-alternatives are limited by townhouses."
Yeah, they were afraid to tear down Mariner's Cove West. This despite every owner of every unit wanting a buyout since right after the storm. But very early on, the Corps New Orleans District (specifically Fred Young) told Mariner's Cove West townhome owners that the Corps had no intention buying them out. They were told this as early as February, 2006 by Mr. Young, and told the same thing many times after that. The Times-Picayune did a big story about Mariner's Cove West on April 19, 2007 (about a year late, in my estimation), mostly focusing on the struggles the townhouse owners have faced with the Corps' N.O. District Real Estate Division.
Let me make clear exactly what I'm saying here, because this is new. The Corps, knowing they needed more pumping capacity at 17th Street, refused to make way for that capacity - even though every person who would lose their home was willing to be bought out. Instead, the Corps dithered for over a year, leaving the Mariner's Cove West folks in limbo, and - more importantly - leaving everyone who drains into 17th Street without their prestorm pumping capacity.
Now, back to that May 6th Times-Picayune article, because it gets worse. It's about the Corps finally buying out Mariner's Cove West. Except - and you're not going to believe this - they're not going to use the land for anything! Here's the key quote from the article:
"'I just wanted out, but this helps others, who were unsure, to move on,' said [Mariner's Cove West resident Mike] Frank, who has left his native New Orleans for northern Florida. 'They're telling us none of the property will be a project; they will make it green space, so that's good news for the rest of Mariners Cove.'
I nearly spit up my drink when I read this in the paper the day it was printed. I also was amazed that the T-P didn't make the connection between pumping capacity and Mariner's Cove. The folks at New Orleans CityBusiness missed it too when they reported the same basic facts, but with a little more depth in a May 14, 2007 article. They wrote one sentence about the use of the property and also got a vague quote from Col. Wagenaar:
"The Corps said it was necessary to acquire and demolish the buildings to continue current work and provide maintenance space for future projects. 'Because of the ongoing and future work at this location we made the decision to acquire this property,' said Col. Richard Wagenaar, commander of the Corps' New Orleans District."
You have to read the tea leaves and between the lines with these folks. Sometimes, what isn't said is way more important than what is said. And what isn't said - between the two articles - is that the Corps is buying the property in order to fit more pumps into the 17th Street site. That's significant. Do we really think they would hold that information back? Combine it with a) the already stated objections by the local Corps folks that the site is too small; b) what I know the Corps has been telling homeowners for the last year (yes, I've talked to many of those homeowners myself); and c) ERDC's worries, and I only see one conclusion.
So here's the connection between the Mariner's Cove West buyout (specifically its timing) and 17th Street pumps, for those too dim at the paper to make it themselves: there will be no more pumps at 17th Street, despite a bunch of real estate opening up at the site. We're not getting back to pre-Katrina pumping levels for a very long time.
So that's another consequence of placement of the floodgates in the first place: they couldn't actually provide a system that has the same level of protection as we had before Katrina. And in not repairing the walls and enstating the Safe Water Levels, they've constrained that level of protection even further, to the point where we're affected even when there is no hurricane. The two decisions - building the floodgates and not fixing the walls - have had deeply troubling consequences for our city.
The really big consequence - Flood Insurance
Last April, everyone in town was in a tizzy because FEMA had yet to release its post-storm guidance on flood insurance and BFE's (base flood elevations). The ABFE (Advisory Base Flood Elevations) for Orleans Parish was finally released on April 12, 2006. These have allowed the rebuilding to proceed by allowing residents and businesses to purchase flood insurance.
The ABFE's (they were issued for all Katrina- and Rita-affected parishes and counties), which were legally adopted by Orleans Parish on August 3, 2006, are conditional documents. That is, they are based on the Corps doing certain things by certain times. Specifically...
"In addition to the recent USACE storm surge modeling, FEMA has also developed these recommendations based on the height and integrity of the levee system expected to be in place by September 2007."
So what if the levee system - which includes the floodgates and pumps - is not what FEMA expected to be in place by September, 2007?
"Although FEMA is confident in the results from this current assessment, the agency will continue to monitor progress made with regard to levee improvements, findings from other ongoing studies, and enhancements to the agency’s understanding of the probability of flooding in this area. FEMA will adjust the recommended flood elevations as necessary as the agency prepares updated FIRMs [Flood Insurance Rating Maps, popularly known as "flood maps"] for Orleans Parish and its incorporated areas."
And what does that mean? You only have to go one paragraph backwards to find out...
"For the Parish Advisory BFE (ABFE) inside levees, this Guidance is similar to NFIP rules for areas protected by levees being restored to provide 1-percent-annual-chance base flood protection. Should the requirements needed for application of these rules fail to materialize, flood elevations in this area would be based on a "without levee" scenario and could exceed elevations of 8 feet (west and south of Mississippi River) or 13 to 14 feet (east and north of Mississippi River) referenced to the National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929 (NGVD29)."
Now a little explanation is in order. Last year, the Corps was saying they would have a certain level of work done by September, 2007. According this Corps press release, issued the same day as the Orleans ABFE, that level was,
"September 2007 - Completion of restoration of undamaged and subsided areas; completion of previously unconstructed portions of authorized projects"
It's unclear if that's going to happen by this September. There are so many projects included, and I don't know the status of every one. It's also unclear if FEMA is accounting for the floodgates and unrepaired walls in their calculations.
Restoration of the system to the 100-year level authorized by Congress was supposed to be done by 2010. However, the Corps has pushed some of that work out to at least 2012. It is that work which is supposed to allow for true FEMA FIRM's to be issued. But since the region can't wait until 2010 or 2012 or whatever for final maps, FEMA will work off of the Corps long-delayed risk and reliability study, which will supposedly include all the 2010 work.
My question is this: if the current gates and pumps and the lack of repair to the walls are shown to be failures, what happens to flood insurance in the city the day after that failure is confirmed? That is, will FEMA follow up on their statement in the ABFE to "adjust" the flood maps, possibly adjusting them to a "without levee" condition?
I'm certainly no expert on all this flood map stuff, but I can read. And I think the (admittedly very hard) question needs to be asked of FEMA's mitigation folks and the Corps, although we already know the Corps' answer - "everything's fine!"
It needs to be asked because everything in the recovery is based on the availability of flood insurance, and I mean everything. We're talking about billions of dollars in Road Home funds, as well as everyone's mortgages, which require flood insurance, all of which could be placed in jeopardy if the gates don't work, simply because the walls haven't been touched.
Conclusion - the Corps has royally screwed up
None of this would even be happening if they hadn't put in those stupid gates in the first place cutting off New Orleans' drainage capacity. But then they decided to not do anything to the walls, doubling down on their earlier stupidity. So they've made things worse for the past hurricane season, for the coming hurricane season, and for every season until 2013. That's a total of seven hurricane seasons, never mind the problems with normal rainstorms and the safe water level limitations. Like their actions with the datums and the sheet pile lengths (well chronicled in Team Louisiana's report, specifically chapter 5 and chapter 6), the Corps has deliberately bungled their mission of protecting the citizens of New Orleans.
The Corps will not fix the walls. They will rely on their beloved yet untested, unproven, and defective floodgates (we won't really know they work until a storm hits), leaving New Orleans in a more perilous condition than before Katrina. Residents should think long and hard about relying on the gates, the MWI pumps, and the unrepaired walls to save them. The situation has become unbearable, and I hope people realize it before the worst happens, rather than when it's too late.