Fix the pumps

Monday, June 11, 2007

Testing, Testing

Updated 6/22/0, 7/28/07, and 8/13/07. See below.

The Times-Picayune actually managed to put together a sensible article on the upcoming London Avenue canal tests this past Saturday, June 9. I say that, because it's the first time that anyone in the media or at the Corps New Orleans District has admitted the following obviousness:

"Corps officials say they don't know if the load test will provide enough information to change the safe water level and, if it doesn't, what they might suggest doing next.

[Geotechnical engineer for the Corps' St. Louis District Pat] Conroy won't even guess at the outcome.

'We reserve the right to make no prediction at all,' he said. 'We may recommend raising the water level or not changing it or even lowering it.'"

Finally! Someone at the Corps actually admitted they don't know the results of the test two months ahead of time. It's better than the near constant pablum from Bedey, Wagenaar and others that implies that the test is a formality and that the Safe Water Level will be raised to 5 feet.

The article mentions that a contract has been issued for the test. You can find the official notification of the contract award buried on page 5 of this notification.

The article didn't really have anything to say about further testing after the localized test. However, a June 2, 2007 article in Engineering News-Record about General Van Antwerp's "truth and victory" tour through New Orleans at the end of the month provides the necesary information:

"The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, one of the consolidated levee boards formed in January, has been very vocal in questioning the safety and validity of the London Avenue load test. Antwerp gave assurances that the Corps will have ample personnel on the ground to monitor the test. If the test doesn't provide enough evidence to support increasing the SWE, 'any additional testing will not be performed this hurricane season,' Bedey says."

Considering that the testing won't occur until well into hurricane season, and also considering that it took the Corps over six months just to get to the point of contract issuance, it's a guarantee there won't be any further testing.

[The link inside the quote comes from ENR's webpage. Unfortunately, one must be a subscriber to get access to most of their articles. That's too bad, because they've done a ton of coverage on the London Avenue canal testing. Update, 7/28/07: All the ENR articles are linked below.]

One other note: this article says that the four foot safe water level has led to shutdowns of PS#3 pumps "at least once in recent months." This is just the T-P getting snotty over my breaking news that they missed. Of course, we all know that pumps at PS#3 on the London Avenue canal have been shut down twice because of exceeding the Safe Water Level, once on December 30, 2006 (that's the one I broke, and which the T-P took days to catch up to), and once on May 4, 2007.

[Update: 6/22/07]
Today the T-P ran an article about the East Bank Levee Board (officially known as the SLFPA-E) meeting yesterday (see 8/13/07 Update below for minutes of meeting), at which the independent experts brought in the review the Corps' plans for the London Avenue canal testing presented their findings.

While the experts gave a thumbs up to the existing plans to examine the canal walls' susceptibility to gap formation, they also strongly recommended expanding the testing to look for problems with seepage:
"...Specialists brought in at the behest of levee authority members for a second opinion reported Thursday that they are even more concerned about a second potential mechanism for failure, one in which water would seep through sandy soils in the bottom of the London Avenue Canal, causing heaves or blowouts in the earthen levees on the land side of the floodwalls.

The pair told authority members on Thursday that both failure mechanisms should be examined during the same test period. "

This is smart. Seepage - contrary to the article author's totally incorrect assertion that gap formation led to both London Avenue canal breaches in Katrina - is what caused the blow out at the London Avenue South breach just north of Mirabeau Avenue. It is also suspected as a contributing failure mechanism in the London Avenue North breach. It is wise to look at seepage in this test.

However, one has to wonder why the testing plan didn't call for seepage testing to begin with, since top engineers in the Corps' New Orleans District were already citing seepage last year as a problem on London Avenue. Here's a quote from a September 12, 2006 Times-Picayune article (by the same author as the others - one has to wonder if she even reads her own clip file):

"Although most public attention since Katrina has focused on the 17th Street Canal, [Corps chief engineer Walter] Baumy said protecting the London [Avenue] canal from surge is more problematic because sand layers are closer to the surface there and seepage -- with potentially catastrophic results -- is a threat."

Also, that Corps guy Pat Conroy from St. Louis was quoted extensively in a Corps article just last June (yes, that's post-Katrina, post-IPET report release) about ... wait for it ... seepage! Here's one of those quotes:
"In fact, investigations into the occurrence and control of underseepage are a major consideration of the geotechnical design of a flood protection system"

Why wasn't control of underseepage even a factor in the Corps' testing of the London Avenue canal until outside, non-Corps experts brought it up?

I get the idea that these guys at the Corps really don't know what the hell they're doing.

Anyway, the Corps said they would incorporate the additions to the testing plan, and the SLFPA-E (that's tough to type!) approved the testing plan.
[end 6/22/07 update]

[Updated 7/28/07]
Engineering News-Record did a fabulous job in April and May covering this and other canal wall-related issues with a series of articles. They did much better than the Times-Picayune. Here they are:

Corps Wants Coffer Dam Test Nola Flood Board Wants Action - 4-12-07
Levee Board Gives Corps Conditional Permission for Levee Load Test - 4-20-07
Levee Board Holds Corps To Peer-Review Standards - 5-2-07
17th St. Canal OK Corps Says But Not So for London Ave - 5-25-07
Load Ratings of Drainage Canals Become Sore Point in New Orleans - 5-30-07

My favorite quote from these articles comes courtesy of Tom Jackson, then-president of the SLFPA-E. In the May 25th article, he says,
"'London is a problem,' says Tom Jackson, SLFPA-east president. 'Taxpayers paid for +12ft of protection and we got four,' he says. 'The whole thing about this exercise is the calculations for safety are 1.3, and they want to perform more tests to raise levels on levees that are absolute junk at best. The problem with this is this is not a storm-event-situation but every-time-it-rains situation. That’s why I keep telling them to fix the damn levees. If the peer reviewers are worth their salt, they will have the same reaction we do. Fix the damn levees.'"

Hmmm... where have I heard something like that before?

Previous posts that I've written about the London Avenue canal testing:
London Avenue canal tests, originally posted March 27, 2007
It's May in New Orleans - that means rain , originally posted May 7, 2007
Prepare for more PS#3 pump shutdowns, originally posted June 1, 2007
[end 7/28/07 update]

[Updated 8/13/07]
Here's more information about the London Avenue load test.

First, here's the minutes from the June 21, 2007 SLFPA-E meeting. That's the meeting at which official approval of the test was granted. The minutes contain all the nitty-gritty technical details of the testing plan. Since they are a primary document, they are far more informative than media reports.

Second, the Washington Post wrote about the test in its August 11, 2007 editions. The article treads much of the territory I've covered here, but it's still good for those folks in the rest of the country to get an introduction to real-time oversight of the Corps. The article by Peter Whoriskey, titled "Engineers to Test Flood Defenses In New Orleans," is here.

Finally, the Corps Hurricane Protection Office put up a "fact sheet" on its website this past Friday, August 10, 2007 (they always sneak this stuff out on Fridays). It too includes much previously reported information, with one important difference. It gives the start date of the test as Friday, August 17, 2007. It also reports the test's duration to be two weeks. The Corps fact sheet is here. Of course, in the section on "Why Test?" they don't mention that they don't have the money to actually fix the canal the way it's supposed to be.
[end 8/13/07 update]


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