Fix the pumps

Monday, November 09, 2009

Parsing: Corps publicly commits to fix outfall canal walls

[Updated 11/17/09]

I kind of wish the local media more than one representative of the local media had paid close attention to the November 5, 2009 City Council meeting, because they would have heard a rather amazing pair of statements from the Corps' Karen Durham-Aguilera and Colonel Sinkler, heads of Task Force Hope and the Hurricane Protection Office respectively.

The slides for the meeting - including 25 slides not shown to the public - are available here. The video of the meeting is available here. The first statement comes at about 2:17:38 into the meeting.

In response to a question from the Council, Ms. Durham-Aguilera, the civilian program director for the entire Corps effort around New Orleans, says,

"We've got engineering analyses of those outfall canal walls and those safe water elevations ongoing right now with Sewerage & Water Board and levee authorities. So we're looking to see if we can physically improve those walls further and assure that Sewerage & Water Baord would not have an overtopped system."

A few minutes later, at 2:23:48, again in response to a question, Col. Sinkler says,

"After the Safe Water Elevation studies are complete and after they [the canal walls] are rehabilitated based upon the information we gather from those studies, they will be able to accommodate any needs that the Sewerage & Water Board has to remove rainwater through those canals. And things are well on track to do that. We're working hand in hand with the Sewerage & Water Board to ensure that's the case."

This is HUGE news. After over four years, the Corps has publicly pledged to fix the walls along the outfall canals to eliminate the need for "safe water levels." So when will those studies be done?

"The corps' new goal is to have all three new analyses -- along with any residual work required to raise safe water elevations -- finished no later than the June 1 start of next hurricane season."
- Times-Picayune, September 28, 2009


So they won't even begin designing improvements until the 2010 hurricane season. Maybe they'll be done for the fifth anniversary of Katrina next August.

By the way, don't forget the Corps had plans right from the beginning in early 2006 for "bank stabilization contracts" which would have shored up the walls along with installing the gates and pumps that are out there now. Those contracts were budgeted at $29 million and were included in the same document which laid out the plans for the gates, Revision 1 of the post-storm Project Information Report. The scope of those contracts is here, while the budgetary numbers are here:

I've already written about the bank stabilization plans three times before: September 14, 2006, January 13, 2007, and March 15, 2007. Those plans went "poof" at some point, probably around the same time the Corps was deciding it was too expensive to line the canals as part of the permanent solution - late 2005 and early 2006. Who knows where the money went?

Now admittedly, the scope of bank stabilization has undoubtedly changed as the Corps has studied the problem repeatedly ad infinatum over the last four years, but the intent to do something and to set aside tens of millions of dollars were there right after the storm. And here we are over four years later, and the Corps is now "announcing" the same thing like the citizens of New Orleans should be pleased they've come to the same conclusion they came to years ago. And it could be another year before anything at all is done.

So while it is BIG news that they are saying they will "rehabilitate" and "physically improve" the walls after not doing anything to them since spring of 2007 (minor work at 17th Street to bring the Safe Water Elevation there up to 6 feet), one must remember the context - they already decided to do this once before, and then shifted the dollars somewhere else. The difference this time around is that they have said it in a public meeting that is on video for perpetuity, rather than in an internal report that no one gets to see without at FOIA request. They need to have their feet held to the fire this time around, especially since they have decided - against the wishes of all the people actually protected by their work - that Option 1 is the way.

Update - 11/17/09
On November 16, 2009's 9 PM newscast, local TV station Fox 8 covered this story, (video here)providing more essential detail.

The nut of the article is provided by the Corps John Grieshaber:
"'There are a number of possibilities and they are unique to different situations. Deep soil mixing is one, driving new sheet pile to cut off seepage is another, modification of the internal walls of the canal, and putting relief wells,' Grieshaber said. 'Deep soil mixing is when you actually go into the foundation and you mix cement and form columns which changes the strength of the soil. It makes the soil a lot stronger.'"

All of these methods are quite extreme, far more extreme than the simple pouring of rock done near the I-10 bridge over the 17th Street canal in 2007. In fact, deep soil mixing (DSM) and driving seepage cutoffs are the exact methods proposed for the canal deepening that is at the heart of Option 2, which the Corps claims they are not authorized to build. Black & Veatch wrote about both of these methods extensively in their description of the canal deepening options in the 2009 90-day report. The phrase "DSM" appears 44 times in that report.

The fact the Corps has acknowledged they are essentially looking at completely rebuilding sections of the canal walls (likely along London Avenue, but very possibly along 17th Street as well) in the style of Option 2 is quite a large admission.

A few points regarding this:

1) The gates have never been closed at the Orleans Avenue canal, since its safe water level is 8 feet, a very, very tall limit. If similar safe water elevations had been in effect since Katrina all three canals instead of just one, there would have been NO NEED for closure of the Corps' gates and the operation of the Corps' much-investigated pumps since their installation. Instead, the gates at 17th Street (SWE = 6 feet) have dropped twice (Gustav & Ike, both in 2008), and the London gates (SWE = 5 feet) have dropped four times (Gustav & Ike, September, 2009, and Tropical Storm Ida in 2009).

2) The gates and pumps have cost over $400 million in engineering, construction, and maintenance since 2005. How much more bang for their buck could the Corps have gotten by also putting a sum far smaller than that into the walls as well?

3) I have repeatedly asked representatives of Corps Public Affairs offices at the District, Division, and Headquarters level to comment on this story over recent days, but they have not responded to my requests. However, they have spent hours reading my blog; I assume there will be a press release at some point, because otherwise they are ignoring the possibility of "getting their side of the story" out there - a tenet of their strategic communications strategy.

4) The Corps wants to implement Option 1 - against the wishes of local citizens and their representatives - but they have done very little to ensure the entire system of Option 1, i.e. the canals themselves, will work properly. It has been over four years, and besides fixing the breaches and obviously damaged portions of the canal walls and levees, all the Corps has done is pour some rock along a short stretch of the inside of the 17th Street canal.

If the Corps is so hell-bent on putting in Option 1, they should be forced - in writing - to implement engineering measures to ensure safe water levels in each canals that can never impede drainage flow during any rainfall event - as long as those measures do not also impede future Option 2 canal deepening. And the perfect vehicle for that written promise is the Project Patnership Agreement (PPA) governing the permanant pump stations project. That PPA is currently being negotiated between the Corps and the State of Louisiana. The localities may never have another opportunity to make the Corps commit to these repairs again - the PPA is the best chance. Let's hope the state steps up - now that there has been multiple acknowledgements of the wall repair efforts in public - and makes the Corps stand behind their statements with legally enforceable language.


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