Fix the pumps

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Debris Part 8

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14

All of a sudden, the debris story grew legs over the last three days, with multiple reports in multiple outlets. In part it was due to concern over stuff like this:


We'll return to that a little later.

Media interest before SLFPA-W July board meeting

The spark for the sudden jump in interest was the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - West's (SLFPA-W) July 25, 2011 regular board meeting, where the Corps was called to account for all the unresolved debris problems. The SLFPA-W board appears beyond fed up, as they released multiple documents to the media in an effort to overcome any Corps spin. By all accounts, they may have succeeded.

Before the meeting there were two reports, one from WWL-TV and one from Fox 8 (WVUE).

WWL's July 25th report included video from the SLFPAW of a large chunk of debris getting dug out of a stretch of extremely troubled project WBV-14c.2 (contractor: Phylway; borrow source: River Birch):


The video also includes a map of WBV-14c.2, seemingly taken from the SLFPA-W, showing the entire project is of concern:


The WWL report includes a number of quotes from a clearly fed up SLFPA-W President Susan Maclay, such as this one characterizing the debris:
"'... you have large pieces of bricks and concrete and rocks and steel rods and wood, almost tree trunks,' Maclay said. 'This is going to undermine the levee.'"

The WWL story also reveals (again through documents released by SLFPA-W) that some Corps Quality Assurance (QA) inspectors claimed they alerted Corps upper-ups about the problem:
"Even more disturbing, she said, is that the corps' quality assurance reports reveal that its own inspectors have also alerted corps management about the problem.

One entry says, '...again mentioned to CQC the importance of removing objectionable materials.'

'But management has not done anything about it,' Maclay said.

She said so far the corps' management has only responded with what she calls excuses, with the corps saying the amount of debris in the levees is within specifications.

'But if you read the specifications, clearly it's not,' Maclay said."

Based on the level of antipathy by the Corps toward the state inspectors we've seen recorded in the state inspector's reports, I think such excerpts from Corps QA folks need to be taken in perspective, but they are enlightening.

One other thing: while the WWL report indicates "CQC" in the quote above stands for "Corps Quality Control," that's wrong. It actually stands for "Contractor Quality Control." It is the contractor, not the Corps, which is responsible for quality control - like ensuring there's no debris in the material - on Corps jobs. Nevertheless, Corps upper management has long been aware of these problems.

Fox 8's first report aired a day earlier, on Sunday, July 24, 2011 (video can be found at link. I'm not embedding it because Fox 8's embedding doesn't seem to work right).

It highlights a July 15, 2011 letter from SLFPA-W President Maclay to Corps New Orleans District commander Ed Fleming (linked here), which says, among other things "the use of unsuitable material in the construction of this project has been pervasive and continues unabated." The letter concentrates only on three projects: WBV-14c.2, WBV-15a.2, and WBV-3b. The problems at WBV-14c.2 are well documented, as are those at WBV-15a.2, though notably the letter lists many other concerns at WBV-15a.2 besides debris.

WBV-3b seems to be a particular focus of the SLFPA-W. The inspection records available online do not give the full picture which undergirds that concern, but records recently released by the SLFPA-W do. How about this:



That is a huge log that was pulled out of the finished levee at WBV-3b on June 15th during part of the pre-final inspection of that project. But that's not the worst, because look what happens when the camera pulls back:


We can see giant chunks of concrete, what appear to be logs even bigger than the one in the detail above, and an assortment of junk that should make everyone at the Corps wonder what exactly their commanders were crowing about two weeks earlier on June 1st of this year, when they claimed the system was ready for a 100 year storm. And Maclay's July 15th letter indicates there was more:
"Because our inspectors reported finding large logs and other unsuitable material in this levee section [WBV-3b], the contractor [Shavers-Whittle] and USACE's construction division visted the site and removed utility trailers filled with unsuitable material."

That's "trailers," as in more than one. Yikes.

Interestingly, the Fox 8 report includes maps of the projects listed in the letter which appear to go beyond the projects highlighted. Specifically, this map:


The voiceover during the report says this shows the section of levee from the new Westwego pump station to Orleans Village. That description corresponds with the "official" description of only WBV-14c.2, which is located here, in the northern half of the highlighted section on the Fox 8 map:


The highlighted section on the Fox 8 map actually goes much further than the eastern end of WBV-14c.2, tracking all the way down to the end of another project with debris problems, WBV-14b.2:


I don't know what the source document for the Fox 8 graphic was. The July 15, 2011 letter from President Maclay does not explicitly reference WBV-14b.2, and the Fox 8 graphic misplaces the location of Orleans Village:


More than likely, this was simply a graphics error by Fox 8, even though we know WBV-14b.2 has also had debris problems.

Media reporting of the meeting

Anyhow, after the SLFPA-W board meeting, there was another flurry of stories. Again, WWL-TV and Fox 8 had reports (I'm only embedding WWL's video; Fox 8's can be found at the link because their embedding doesn't work too well):



The Times-Picayune also chimed in.

All three reports hit mostly the same notes. They all reported the same platitudes ("public safety is out number one priority" and such) and excuse-making by the Corps. From WWL's report:
"Monday, corps officials pointed out, the Westwego levee [specifically WBV-14c.2] is still under construction, and some areas analyzed could have been cleared of debris after inspectors left.

They said spot inspections often lack proper context."

This is pure BS. There are literally dozens of inspection reports, some on a weekly basis, with hundreds of photos taken along lengthy stretches of multiple projects showing debris all over the place. Indeed, we've seen the "we'll clean it up" excuse from the Corps' QA guys too many times to count. And the tone of such comments undermines the further BS about the Corps' work being a partnership with SLFPA-W and the state.

Perhaps it is then fitting that the New Orleans District is being shoved aside in part of their QA duties, as WWL goes on to report:
"[Fleming] said a new inspection team will be on the ground by next week, the number of inspections will be increasing and crews will trench the levees in some spots to determine how deep inside debris is located.

[...]

Corps officials said the new inspection team will come in from outside the New Orleans District."

Fox 8 says the outside QA team will be overseeing only the trenching:
"Also, a quality assurance team will arrive in town soon to oversee the trenching work."

And unfortunately, it doesn't appear that team will have much autonomy, as the T-P reports:
"Overseeing the efforts will be senior project manager Kevin Wagner."

Wagner is an old hand at the New Orleans District.

Of course, the trenching on the new levee is also a major development. We've already seen trenching occur on the existing levee at WBV-14c.2, when it was being used to build up the new levee:


It was found to contain a ton of debris, just like the new incoming dirt. The Corps tried to discount the findings of those excavations; fortunately the state did their own analysis which confirmed the excessive debris in the existing levee.

I personally think comments from SLFPA-W president Maclay in the first WWL story are the most on point:
"Maclay said it may well be necessary to tear down the levee and rebuild it from scratch."

Based on the reports, that sounds about right.

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