Fix the pumps

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Time itself

For the hurricane protection projects the Corps has been building the last few years, there have been special restrictions placed upon contractors between June 1 and November 30, better known as hurricane season. In case a storm popped up, it would not be wise to have miles of hurricane protection levee degraded or no plan to fill gaps. Typical hurricane season restrictions include:

- not knocking down existing walls without having new walls built, or at least filling in gaps left from the demolition of existing walls with equivalent protection

- not degrading (i.e. removing height) more than a specified length of levee - perhaps a few hundred or a couple thousand feet

- stockpiling supplies at the construction site in order to close gaps quickly in case of the sudden appearance of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico

But throughout 2010, it appears such terms may have been flexible, bringing into question the Corps' commitment to safety versus their meeting of deadlines.

Even before June 1, 2010, cracks started to appear. Project LPV-111 is meant to protect the southern flank of New Orleans East along. It extends about 5.3 miles mostly along the north bank of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW):

This is a huge project, made up mostly of levee upgrades, but also including work on T-walls around Sewerage & Water Board pump station #15 (shown as "OP#15" on the map above) and on the western end near the tie in with the IHNC Lake Borgne closure project.

At LPV-111, SLFPA-East inspectors noted on May 18, 2010:
"IHNC West Tie-in:
T-walls are being constructed aggressively to meet June 1st deadline. Currently driving piles at T10. No footers have been poured yet. Contractor is finalizing their closure plans in the occurrence of a hurricane because its not likely all the walls will be up in time. Closure plan didn't exist pre contract because of the ECI contract."

A few of the larger contracts were "ECI," which is short for Early Contractor Involvement, a term the Corps coined just before this project was put out for bid. Essentially, in ECI the construction contractor starts building stuff before the project is completely designed, in order to build stuff fast. They also work hand-in-hand with the designer while the drawings and specifictions are being developed. There's more details here.

The bid specs were kind of scanty, and they didn't include anything about hurricane season preparations. It's unclear whether the Corps intended anyone to come up with requirements for hurricane season or if they just forgot. Another possibility is the inspectors were not being given the whole story. Whatever the reason, the lack of preparedness would crop up later in the season.

The July 12, 2010 LPV-111 report said,
"Interim flood protection for west tie in: AWA sketched an idea on the white board using a structure that results from the demolition of I-wall. This concrete wall structure combined with hesco baskets and backfilling would give protection. USACE will have to analyze the design."

"AWA" is the contractor, a joint venture of Archer Western and Alberici, two very large contracting companies. The "west tie in" refers to the western end of the project which ties in with the rather large IHNC closure structure on Lake Borgne. This end was made up of about 1000 feet of T-wall. The reference to "interim" is speaking to flood protection during the huricane season while the project was under construction.

With that explanation out of the way, one has to question the propriety of a contract mechanism that favors speed so much that little things like storm protection during hurricane season are being designed for the first time on a whiteboard a month and a half into that hurricane season. Even worse is that the "design" seemingly consisted of piling up debris and sand ("Hesco baskets" are just big metal cages that hold large sandbags. Their effectiveness as flood protection is questionable, but the Corps swears by them).

Even more disturbing details came out a week later. The July 19, 2010 report mentioned,
"Interim Flood Protection - the approval to use a 16' elevation was overturned back to the original 17.5' requirement. The west tie in monolith configuration of HESCO Baskets is still not agreed upon. Contractor does not want to use 11 rows of hescos as proposed in Memphis's design. They are going to submit other designs to USACE for approval."

So nearly two months into hurricane season, not only was there no agreement on how to construct temporary flood protection, there wasn't even agreement on how high it should be. For reference, the existing height of the levees before this project started was 17.5'.

Four days later there was even more scrambling. On July 23, 2011:
"[Corps Resident Engineer] has given contractor permission to go with elevation 12' levees and floodwalls as of today. There will be a 10am meeting Saturday to reevaluate the need for 16' elevation depending on the progression of the storm in the gulf."

In the space of a few days, the Corps went from requiring 17.5' of protection to only requiring 12'. And this was with an actual storm brewing!

That storm was Tropical Storm Bonnie. On Friday, July 23rd it was crossing the southern tip of Florida and taking direct aim at Southeast Louisiana. As it turned out, they lucked out. The storm dissipated and came ashore as little more than a low pressure system. In the wake of that close call, the report from the following Monday, July 26, 2010 shows some evidence of a "come to Jesus"-type agreement to do things better. Whereas on July 19th the contractor was whinging about the Corps' Memphis District plans for use of Hesco baskets, on July 26th, after getting caught with no plan at all and a storm in the gulf, we found,
"Interim Flood Protection for West Tie-in: Contractor continues to work on alternate ideas to be reviewed by USACE and will follow Memphis District's current plan in the event of a hurricane."

But LPV-111 was not the only project which failed the Tropical Storm Bonnie test that July. LPV-101.02 also had big gaps in preparedness - literally.

LPV-101.02 is the construction of t-wall floodwalls (in place of i-walls) at the western end of the Lake Pontchartrain lakefront in Orleans Parish, running from the east side of the Interim Closure Structure at the 17th Street canal toward the east and ending at Topaz St. Here it is on a map:

On June 14, 2011 we found this out:
"Hurricane Drill: Contractor did a drill to show they could close up gaps in the even of a hurricane on Monday, June 13th, which they failed. They will be performing another one soon."

The lead contractor on LPV-101.02 is Tetra Tech. That failure would be prophetic. Because the Saturday, July 24, 2010 report - from the day when Tropical Storm Bonnie was in the Gulf of Mexico - noted
"The contractor did not complete gap closer [sic] at LPV101.02"

The next report - from Monday July 26, 2010 - actually has pictures of the gaps, along with this text:
"a review of site was made this A.M. The Gap closer plan was not 100% there are gaps in HESCO baskets behind wall four."

The pictures plainly show two separate gaps - each about two feet wide - in the line of Hesco baskets placed to close a gap left by the demolition of I-walls:

About three weeks later, on August 11, 2010, we did find out:
"HESCO basket Closure reviewed. The gaps between wall and baskets have been closed."

Just in time!

You'd think close calls like that would have been a warning. They weren't.

Two months later, the Corps decided to dispense with hurricane season construction restrictions altogether for a number of contractors, just so they could work faster. In effect, the Corps said that the 2010 hurricane season ended October 31 rather than November 30. This was not announced to the population of New Orleans and surrounding communities. The idea was to speed prjects up to meet the June 1, 2011 deadline. Note that most projects had contract provisions called "liquidated damages" which kicked in if the project was late - the contrator would have to start paying money back to the Corps.

This reverse Groundhog Day effect ("four fewer weeks of hurricane season!") started emerging in the October 15, 2010 reports, when Archer Western-Alberici, the lead contractor on LPV-111 (yes, that project again) got let out the provisions intended to safeguard public safety:
"Contractor has been given permission to stop following the strict hurricane season restrictions on November 1st as long as they have material on site in the instance of a hurricane."

More detail was given in the October 19th report:
"Advance start date for Hurricane Season: Contractor has submitted locations they would like to start working before Dec. 1st. Of the locations it was said that work at PS 15 and the pipeline through T12 at IHNC west tie in will be allowed to work with out hurricane season restrictions. The contractor will have required material onsite in the event of a hurricane."

and in the October 25th report:
"Hurricane season ending Nov 1st: AWA has submitted the plan including locations of work they would like to work on with out the hurricane season restrictions. These locations include PS 15, CTU 6, and Monolith 12 at IHNC west tie in (utilities penetration). USACE, in addition to the submittal, has requested elevations of existing and new foundation monolith at the PS 15 location. After this is received the Nov. 1st date will be approved by USACE."

CTU 6 is a small pump station run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Finally, the SLFPA-East inspector made explicit the Corps' overruling of the National Hurricane Center on the end date of hurricane season (after all, the Corps obviously knows much more about protecting people from hurricanes than the NHC...):
"IHNC West Tie in:
Work will begin on the utility penetration soon at T12 as a result of the ending of hurricane season effective Nov. 1st.
PS15 Fronting Monoliths:
Contractor was given permission to begin work on the pipeline penetrations at T3 on Nov. 1st in advance of the end of hurricane season. Work on the replacement of the pipelines commenced on the west pipe with construction of the new supports and removal of a portion of the pipe. Only one pipe will be out of service at a time."

Normally I'd be giving lots of details about where all this stuff is and such, but that would really obscure the larger point: the Corps decided to sacrifice better hurricane prepareness for the month of November, 2010 in order to hit their June 1, 2011 self-imposed deadline.

And lest you think the events on LPV-111 were isolated, there was this on October 22, 2010 regarding New Orleans lakefront project LPV-104.02 (contractor: Quality Enterprises, see map above for location):
"Foundation poured from T-9 to T-14 and rebar is constructed for wall sections of these monoliths. Contractor [may] wait to pour the walls so they can demo existing I-walls behind new walls. This will be contingent on the hurricane season requirements being reduced to the Nov. 1st date."

I think that's saying they were trying leave new T-walls undone and instead were moving to knock down existing I-walls, presumably leaving a gap in the hurricane protection that would otherwise not be allowed during hurricane season.

A little bit to the east, at LPV-106 (contractor: L&A, see map above for location), safety was also given up for expediency, as reported on November 4, 2010:
"USACE gave contractor permission starting Nov. 1st to continue project with out hurricane season restrictions. Contractor has degraded levee from monolith 102 to LPV - 108 intersection. Work will begin on monoliths for this section."

Again, another sizable gap in New Orleans' hurricane protection was allowed during hurricane season.

So it wasn't really a surprise when a fourth project was given the go-ahead to demolish hurricane protection inside hurricane season with no backup. At project LPV-148.02 (lead contractor: Cajun Construction), shown on this map:

I-walls on either side of the St Mary's pump station started getting knocked down on November 9, 2010. The reports about it are not well written, so I apologize in advance for their garbled nature:
"Observe demolition of I-wall at St. Mary's PS. The contractor remove the west side I-wall. This I-wall was removed without the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District and Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East acknowledgement. The wall was removed without the contractor installing the new wall. The contractor removed the wall to have access for discharge pipes for three temporary storm water pumps. This work was scheduled after December 1, 2010 (after Hurricane Season)."

So the locals, represented by the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District (LBBLD) and the SLFPA-East, were under the impression that work which would remove hurricane protection during hurricane season wouldn't start until after hurricane season. Note that SLFPA-East had also been getting reports from their own inspectors for three weeks that at least three other projects had been given green lights similar to LPV-148.02, so this shouldn't have come as such a huge surprise.

There were pictures taken on November 9th, immortalizing what it looks like when a federal agency gives the go ahead to destroy hurricane protection during hurricane season with no real plan for replacing it:

A lot of ink was spilled in the reports the following day (again, sorry for the poor grammar):
"The issue of St. Mary Pump Station was discussed at length. The contractor removed a section of flood wall at the pump station in preparation for extra pumps to be used while work was being done at station. LBBLD was not informed that this work would be started and The Director of the district was at meeting to express his displeasure about the work being done with out a proper closure plan."

The report gives the contractor's excuse/reason:
"The work was the result of an RFI and the RFI meeting on Friday, November the 5th. The contractor felt because of this meeting he was able to move forward with his plan to demo wall. The biggest problem was a break down in line of communication between all parties. The contractor has maintained elevation 9 is required to maintain elevation 6 at all times. He is also required to maintain elevation 17 in hurricane season which end November 30. If he opens a gap in that level of protection he is required to be able to close the gap within 24 hrs of notification of the approach of a storm. The Contractor feels he has a gap closure plan in place. The plan should be updated with each phase of work."

A note of clarification - an "RFI" is a "Request for Information," a which is basically a question posed by the contractor to the Corps on some point that is unclear in the Corps' drawings or the Corps' specifications. They are a prelude to change orders.

The November 5th "RFI Meeting" was obviously not just held by the contractors' own personnel. There were Corps personnel there, and they obviously gave the go-ahead to demolish the St Mary's pump station wall ahead of the end of hurricane season. This is in line with what was going on at at least three other Corps projects that same week. So what is reported above by the SLFPAE inspector appears to be a line of BS by the Corps - repeated by the inspector - in total contradiction to what was actually told to the contractor. It wasn't a breakdown in communication at all - the contractor clearly got the message from the Corps. And the locals being left out of the loop is just standard operating procedure with the Corps, not a breakdown at all.

So, what was the gap closure plan the contractor supposedly had? It was mentioned in a separate November 9, 2010 report:
"The contractor has Heskow [sic] baskets on standby in Slidell, LA and sand on standby at Murphy sand pit."

The "Murphy sand pit" is likely referring to the pit at Murphy Construction Company in Chalmette, about 13 miles up Highway 46 from the site. The Hesco baskets in the city of Slidell were across Lake Pontchartrain from the work site, over 40 miles away. Obviously, the contractor had neither "on site." That's hardly a workable plan if a storm were to appear in the Gulf.

So there you have it - the Corps "breaking their back" to meet their June 1, 2011 deadline. Except it wasn't their back they were breaking - it was, once again, the residents they are supposedly protecting.

The SLFPA-East inspection reports referenced above can be found at a link within this earlier post.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Corps of Whingeneers

The T-P recently reported on the SLFPA-West attempting to get the Corps to follow their own specifications on project WBV-14d.2, the V-line levee floodwall south of Marerro. In the case of this project, the flood protection authority is concerned about bug holes (air pockets formed as concrete was poured and cured) and cracks in the wall.

As is to be expected, the Corps did their usual pooh-poohing. However, the T-P reporter (Paul Rioux) actually caught the Corps going further:
"Sami Mosrie, a corps senior project manager, said the corps is drafting a "white paper" to address some of the areas of disagreement.

He said corps officials have bent over backwards to respond to the levee authority's concerns about the floodwall and other projects, including new levees that authority inspectors suspect contain too much woody debris.

"This is over and above what we've ever done before in turning over projects," Mosrie said.

Oh boo hoo. Pity the poor Corps. All the nasty locals are picking on them trying make them follow their own specifications.

It's crud like this from the Corps that drives Federal Flood survivors like myself crazy. Are they so blind as to think they are the ones suffering? And are they seriously complaining about outside oversight on a $14 billion project meant to make up for the decades of incomplete and wrong work that led to hundreds of deaths? The idea of such oversight is to make sure the project gets done correctly and completely, down to the last crossing of T's. If the Corps gets inconvenienced because they can't follow their old "trust us and our contractors" way of doing business, I say "suck it up."

SLFPA-W commissioner Jerry Viera put it a little more diplomatically:
"Levee authority commissioner Jerry Viera said the authority is simply performing its due diligence to ensure the flood-control projects are built properly before taking over operation and maintenance responsibilities.

'In industry, it doesn't depend on the word of the contractor,' he said. 'It depends on the specifications and whether they've been met.'"

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