Flood authority flexes technical muscle, and Corps of Engineers responds

The announcement Monday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is installing a monitoring system to watch for  problems with the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet  floodwalls likely was sour news for most east bank residents.

But for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, it was vindication for the reforms that birthed it after Hurricane Katrina. By law, the authority’s board includes engineers and scientists. It  replaced levee boards that had become politicians’ patronage plums that were filled with people who may have had no technical expertise.

In pushing for the new authority, reformers said professional prowess was needed to adequately oversee the engineering and construction done by the corps.

Today’s action marks one of the first times the flood authority’s major technical concerns have been heeded by the corps.  It has voiced concerns about the MR-GO levee design since 2007

“We raised the concern the moment the proposal was put forward to build it that way,” said Stephen Estopinal, the engineer who is president of the board.

“I think this is a pretty good example of why it was important to establish this independent authority, and putting qualified people on the authority so they can review these things.”

The concern centered on the “batter piles” – piling driven on an angle so they provide subsurface lateral support on both sides of of the wall’s foundation.

A variation of the “T” wall design considered a vast improvement on the “I” walls that failed during Katrina, the authority was troubled by the fact the design had never been used on the soft, subsidence-plagued delta soils  the entire region sits on.

batter pilings 2

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

That could result in two problems that might reduce the strength of the walls, said Bob Turner, the engineer who is the regional director of the authority. The first was corrosion that might set in portions of pilings if subsidence left them open to the salty water in the MR-GO which is fed by the Gulf.

The authority urged the corps to reduce that risk by coating the pilings with a impervious, corrosion-resistant coating.

But the corps chose to account for possible corrosion by increasing the thickness of the metal in the pilings, a decision the authority considered less safe.

“We raised hell about this with the corps from the very first,” said John Barry, former vice-president of the board. “We voted unanimously to have the corps coast those pilings. But, in their wisdom, they decided not to.”

The second threat was what engineers term “subsidence-induced bending moment” — increased stress on the angled pilings caused as the subsiding soil presses against it.

Monday, the corps released a study of inspections showing both subsidence and corrosion along the wall was less than built into its performance parameters. Col. Richard Hansen, flanked by his top engineering staff as well as the flood authority’s Turner, said the corps analysis showed the walls currently could perform as designed, standing up to the so-called 100-year storm.

But Hansen said the corps was “not going to gamble with the safety of the public,” so it was building a comprehensive system of monitors that will provide real-time information on corrosion, subsidence and stress on the batter piles.

Of most concern is the section that runs from the Bayou Dupre to Bayou Bienvenue and connects with the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier. It cost about $350 million to build, and has a  life of 100 years. However, Troy Constance, Deputy District Engineer, said that was not a guarantee it would not need repairs before that time.

In fact, said Estopinal, if corrosion or subsidence renders sections unreliable, the costs for repair likely would fall “on the taxpayers of East Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, and the state of Louisiana.”

Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.org, said that was a serious problem with the new flood authority.

“They are great, they do a great job, and it’s better than the old system,” she said. “But the bottom line is they have no authority to tell the corps to do anything.

“They wanted these piling coated since the beginning. But the corps said ‘no.’

“And here we are.”

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About Bob Marshall

From 2013 to 2017, Bob Marshall covered environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories and issues of Louisiana’s wetlands was recognized with two Pulitzer Prizes and other awards. In 2012 Marshall was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Loyola University School of Communications Den of Distinction.

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  • Chris McLindon

    The inclusion of science into the conversation is always a welcome addition. An similar evaluation of effects of subsidence on some of the major restoration projects would be equally beneficial.


  • Edward Richards

    The idea that any part of the flood protection system can last 100 years without maintenance is crazy. One of the many reasons LA cannot be compared with Holland is that the Dutch know that flood protection systems require constant maintenance. Subsidence is only one of the factors that must be monitored. Simple things like a tree growing on the edge of the levee, which can pull out a section of the levee when it blows down, can lead the levee to fail. The state and localities must face the real costs of constant maintenance when they calculate the cost of maintaining these high risk communities.

  • Clay

    100 years with no maintenance isn’t the issue…

    All major civil engineering structures have ~100 year design life. Consider a bridge across the Mississippi River with a hundred year design life…. That’s going to assume that there’s regular repainting to keep rust in check and inspections and minor repair work. If, after just a decade or two the bridge falls over (ex- MN bridge) or requires replacing a main span, well, that’s a design error and the engineer failed in meeting his proscribed design life. If, say DOT doesn’t repaint the bridge, it corrodes away, and needs to be replaced, that’s on the maintaining agency, not the design engineer.

    The issue is the Corps’ batter piles on the “Great Wall of Louisiana” were installed with no coating. Usually, raw carbon steel driven into the ground in South Louisiana gets a coat of coal tar epoxy to protect against rust. If, as the Corps assumed, oxygen doesn’t get at the batter piles, that’ll be a good engineering decision. If, in 10 years, this monitoring finds that the batter piles have been chewed up by rust and the wall can no longer hold back the shear force and bending moment of a surge, well, that’s a problem. Re-driving those batter piles could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

    My final thought: “Anyone can build a bridge that stands… It takes an engineer to build a bridge that just barely stands!”

  • Kelly M. Haggar

    At least in aircraft, a jet which barely meets the specs is perfect. The “iron bird” F-15 broke in the stress jig at 151% of design load . . . and the engineers were delighted. If it had held together longer, then it was too heavy, and performance suffers. In airplanes, ultimate load is 150% of design load, so a 2G airliner can 3 Gs – – once – – and it should make it back to runway. “Failure shall not occur at the ultimate load.” Pull 3.2 Gs and shed the wings, whatever else that may be, it isn’t a design flaw or an engineering failure.
    Levees are different. Unless they are built on baby poop, no one cares what they weigh. Oh. Right. Yours are. Hmmm.
    Meanwhile, here’s what the NSF/Bea/Berkeley ILIT team showed about the levee design safety factor for Katrina.
    Notice “commercial aviation” at the bottom of the chart under “US Dams.” That’s how safe you are in a 2G airliner compared to living in New Orleans.
    Those of you who afraid of flying, perhaps you should re-evaluate what degree of risk is out of your comfort zone?

  • Edward Richards

    When you read what the levee board says, they appear to be thinking that they don’t have to do anything for 100 years. The most interesting problem is not the piles, it’s that there is no good way to raise the flood wall as subsidence and sea level rise drown the coast. If you start extending the flood wall, you are going to need to change the supports, if they haven’t rusted away.

  • Edward Richards

    When you read what the levee board says, they appear to be thinking that they don’t have to do anything for 100 years. The most interesting problem is not the piles, it’s that there is no good way to raise the flood wall as subsidence and sea level rise drown the coast. If you start extending the flood wall, you are going to need to change the supports, if they haven’t rusted away.

  • Chris McLindon

    Ultimately the issue isn’t design or maintenance. It is integrating science into the engineering. Fort Proctor was perfectly well designed. While most of the other forts of its era around the Gulf could still have utility, Fort Proctor is useless – not because of its design or maintenance, but because its builders were ignorant of the effects of subsidence.

  • dimdingledon

    The SLFPA-E never ceases to amaze me at how they try to cover their failure to do the job they were appointed to do. The SLFPA-E had ample opportunities to comment, review and object to the work the Corps was doing on the projects involving these floodwalls. Karen Durham-Aguillera personally came to the SLFAPE and told them the Corps was going to build T-Walls for the project to cut the cost of the fill material that would be reauier if a levee were built. Not one objection from the SLFPA-E. Another case of building on the cheap instaedof building what was needed. After the decision was made to build the T-walls, the Corps went into the design phase and not a word out of the Doody-Barry led SLFPA-E on the uncoated piles or the bending streeses that could be placed the battered piles until the construction phase was well underway. The designs were near completion in December 2009. In January of 2010 the SLFPA-E began granting rights of entry fro these projects. Not the thing to do if you did not agree with a design. The Doody-Barry led SLFPA-E was giving the Corps everything they asked for without ever reviewing the Corps’ work for technical merit. Objections were not made regarding the lack of protective coatings on the steel until later once construction began. The Doody-Barry led SLFPA-E has been a major disappointment at a reform effort and a technically board. It was just a fancied up smoke and mirror side show that was pulled on the citizens once again.

  • dimdingledon

    I don’t agree with Sandy Rosenthal’s (of levees.org) assessment that the SLFPA-E does a great job. They failed to even review the work of the Corps when they had the chance. Just ask one commissioner for a copy of his design review. I believe they are non-existent. They did not even look at the drawings – just ask them for a copy of the email or transmittal letter sending them a copy of the drawings and calculations tp prove they reviewed them. The SLFPA-E shifted all of the review effort to Bob Turner. So in effect we had a board of one. The Doody-Barry led SLFPA-E failed to issue one task order to the engineering firms it solicited RFQs from to review these designs. That decision was a concerted effort by the Doody and Barry not to allow the discussion at SLFPA-E meetings to dominate with technical discussions that they could not control. They fought to maintain control over this board and they would not give up the control even if it meant having another inferior system.

    This is just the tip of the problem. Just wait until someone truly independent looks at the storm surge modeling and how it low balls the 100 year event and low balls even further our actual flood threat. As a result, the system fails to provide real 100 year protection and falls even shorter for providing protection against our actual threat. But for some reason, the SLFPA-E and the Corps keep getting passes on the reality of the work performed on the new system.

  • dimdingledon

    “We raised the concern the moment the proposal was put forward to build it that way,” said Stephen Estopinal, the engineer who is president of the board.

    Not true. The designs were done and with no review by the commissioners of the SLFPA-E. The objections were voiced during the construction phase. It was too late then. There are only two bargaining chips you have with the Corps on projects. One is the signed document for the project as the local sponsor. The other is the right of entry to allow the Corps’ contractor the ability to access the site. The SLFPA-E had one bargaining chip and that was the right of entry. Once it was given to the Corps they had what they needed. And they were free to do whatever they wanted.

    Perhaps the commissioners should have looked at the drawings during the design phase instead if waiting until construction was underway to voice a concern over a design issue. No drawings were ever part of the records of any SLFPAE meeting. So when would the commissioners have looked at them and reviewed them? In an announced public meeting? In a secret meeting? Or more likely, a review was never performed by the commissioners.

  • dimdingledon

    The Doody-Barry led SLFPA-E allowed the Corps to build the new system using a 50 year projected total of 1 foot allowance for combined sea level rise and subsidence without any objections. That was poor judgement by the Corps and even poorer judgement by the SLFPA-E not to object to the low value.

  • dimdingledon

    Again lots of hot air from the SLFPA-E. Regarding the lack of protective coating on the piles or as Barry was quoted “to coast those piles” was not an issue until December 2009. That is when the Corps sought and received a waiver for the coal tar epoxy coating. So for any commissioner to say they voiced concern about this since 2007 simply is a fabrication.

  • dimdingledon

    And the non-coated piles were installed at more locations than just the T-wall in St. Bernard. Uncoated steel has also been used on projects in Orleans Parish. But for some unknown reason the current and former SLFPA-E presidents only wants to focus on uncoated piles in St. Bernard.

  • dimdingledon

    Sandy where is the evidence that the SLFPA-E has done or is doing a great job? They’ve not reviewed the designs of the Corps prior to construction. They’ve not reviewed the storm surge modeling until the construction was completed. They’ve given $50,000 contracts to connected individuals like throwing beads at Mardi Gras parades. They’ve allowed one member to select in secret by himself and determined compensation in secret the attorney for their coastal lawsuit. They’ve given St. Bernard parish millions of dollars of Orleans Parish tax revenue in violation of the state law that created the SLFPA-E which strictly forbids spending funds in one jurisdiction collected in another jurisdiction without the vote of the citizens. They’ve allowed the Corps to proceed with inferior design modifications one behind the other from allowing Option 1 over Option 2 on the outfall canals to allowing uncoated steel to be used in corrosion zones throughout the system. They’ve allowed inferior I-walls to remain on the Industrial, London Avenue, and 17th Street Canals. They’ve allowed the Corps to double pump rainwater at he outfall canal and will cost the taxpayers of Orleans tens of millions of dollars annually for this. They’ve allowed the Corps to under estimate the rate of subsidence and sea level rise for the new system ( a combined total of 1 foot). They’ve allowed a system to be constructed that cannot evacuate rainwater or floodwater once the gates are closed in New Orleans East. They’ve allowed the Corps to use under estimated still water and wave elevations in the storm surge model that were used to set the heights of the levees. They have allowed individual commissioners to collect tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses in their city of domicile that are in violation of state travel regulations. So I am having a little difficulty finding the evidence of the great job they are doing. Please give us an example of the great work. I’ve been waiting to see it since 2007.

  • dimdingledon

    This board has complete authority over what work gets done or not by having complete control over the right of entry. But SLFPAE has never chosen to exercise that authority. Until the SLFPAE board has exercised their power to deny a right of entry request, and had that project go forward anyway, it is completely false to claim that they have no authority on what flood protection work gets done.

  • nickelndime

    Thank you, “dimdingledon.” Please
    continue. 02/12/2015 11:37 PM

  • Kelly M. Haggar
  • nickelndime

    Stop it Roy… with the documentation stuff. I got Kelly Haggar, Esq. up there above you and he damn well knows more geologically, ecologically, and legally speaking, than the two of us together in this realm, but Nannette Jolivette is wrong. 02/13/2015 11:38 PM/11:43 PM

  • nickelndime

    See above. 02/13 – FRIDAY/2015 11:46 PM

  • Kelly M. Haggar

    5 cents –
    If you ever get tired of calling the judge corrupt, you can always say she’s a b-eye-itch. If that doesn’t work, say she didn’t pay social security taxes on her illegal nanny. If she denies ever having a nanny, call her a liar on that, too. (I have no clue if she ever had a nanny, illegal or otherwise, but if you’re going to hurl anything you can lift, why let any facts get in the way?) Here’s some help; get creative.



    Nannette Jolivette-Brown praised by both Louisiana senators at federal judgeship confirmation hearing
    Sen. David Vitter, R-La., noting that he was a classmate of Jolivette-Brown at Tulane Law School, described her as possessing a “wonderful, warm, calm personality perfectly suited to the right demeanor a judge should have.”
    Meanwhile, if you find an error in her order, let us know.

  • nickelndime

    Praise from David Vitter for Nannette Jolivette is ENOUGH for me, Kelly M. Haggar. I haven’t yet looked into the other citations. But thanks. I would never call anyone (even NANNETTE JOLIVETTE) a female canine (I love dogs too much and am very much in favor of bringing all of the dogs in the city to City Hall in the poop scoop fray – and sending that group a message too.). However, that will not stop me from applying adjectives to Nannette Jolivette, one of which is CORRUPT. I will not ever get tired of saying it. In fact it is quite a tongue twister. NANNETTE JOLIVETTE IS CORRUPT. NANNETTE JOLIVETTE IS CORRUPT. NANNETTE JOLIVETTE IS CORRUPT. JANNETTE BOLLIVETTE…Damn, you made me mess up, Kelly M. Haggar. 02/14/2015 1:05 PM ….My ASP (that’s my pet snake ASP) sends Vappy Halentines wishes yo’ way. LMAspO!

  • nickelndime

    See above, Kelly M. Haggar. ASP and I are heading out to the parades to see if we can stir up some mischief amongst the “tourists” and the “commoners.” LMAspO! 02/14/2015 1:15 PM

  • Kelly M. Haggar

    Perhaps one of the commoners at a parade can find some error in her opinion?

  • nickelndime

    Most of the parade commoners don’t know what a NANNETTE JOLIVETTE is, much less the written opinions in which she prides herself. Oh look, here comes ASP on the Bacchus Grand Marshall float!!! He is such a handsome fellow. ASP was a parade consultant for Druids, and I am sure you all heard about that. “Paper or Plastic” LMAspO! 02/15/2015 6:33 PM