The Army Corps of Engineers has failed New Orleans

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Harry Shearer

We got lucky. After threatening over 20 inches of rain, Barry turned into barely a drizzle in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Governor John Bel Edwards has taken to the airwaves to extol the performance of our $14B flood defense. But let’s not get giddy. What really saved us was the influx of dry wind from northeast of the incipient hurricane, apparently a natural occurrence. As to the works of man, what follows is a wakeup call.

New Orleans has enjoyed an unusual gift from the weather gods, a decade-plus diversion of the hurricane track from Louisiana to either Texas or the Atlantic Coast. With the exception of Hurricane Isaac (2012), about which more in a moment, we have been spared a serious test of the new “hurricane risk reduction system” built here post-2005 by the same agency whose mis- and malfeasances (amply documented in the ILIT and Team Louisiana reports) almost killed this city. We have been able, after the bereavement and the fraught work of rebuilding, to relax and enjoy our temporary good fortune.

Isaac was primarily a rainfall event in New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers, the agency I just referred to, embedded reporters from the New York Times and CBS News at one of the pump stations at the outfall canals, and the reporters dutifully wrote down and repeated the Corps’ conclusion, post-Isaac: “the new system works.” Were it not for a local engineer, Matt McBride, who ran a blog with the potent title, Fix The Pumps, we would never have known the rest of the story.

McBride filed a Freedom of Information request for internal Corps communications during Isaac. They revealed a loss of remote sensing of the water levels in the three “outfall” canals during the rainstorm, and a “hair on fire” scenario about whether the water in the canals was rising past the new, lower “safe” level.

Those canals’ walls had been undermined in 2005 due to inadequate below-ground support. The outlets had never gotten new walls; they had been partially remediated in 2011. More piecemeal remediation would follow in 2014. The Corps said the walls would never again be challenged by storm surge, thanks to the gates and pumps that now stood between the canals and Lake Pontchartrain. That left the walls open to challenge by rainwater pumped to the canals by the Sewerage and Water Board.

With the “temporary” pumps (replaced years later) unable to get all Isaac’s rainwater past the closed gates and into the lake, a whistleblower inside the Corps tells me that the agency had instructed the S&WB to stand down its pumps sending that rainwater into the canals. Accordingly, she says, had it rained for two more hours, the city might well have flooded anew.

That’s a bullet we may not get to dodge again.

In April, the Corps filed a notification in the Federal Register, later reported by Scientific American, announcing their intention to deal with a little problem: that the $14 billion “risk reduction system” built after Katrina and promoted to Congress as having a 50-year lifespan, would fail to provide the advertised protection in as little as four years from its completion date in May of last year. Shocking enough, but the culprits fingered by the Corps were an even more jaw-dropping revelation: sea-level rise and land subsidence — two phenomena we’ve been talking about and tracking for years. (Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, says the system’s “design accounted for sea level rise, subsidence and increased storm frequency throughout that time frame.)

Is it possible somebody cancelled the Corps’ subscription to engineering journals, newspapers and/or the Internet? Even more bizarre is the well-known fact that one cause of the land subsidence here is the leveeing of the Mississippi River, a project designed and executed by… the Corps of Engineers.

In short, the agency that almost destroyed this city has now betrayed it.

As a community, we have a history of wanting to believe the Corps’ reassurances, both pre- and post-flood. Their repeated boast after Katrina was revealing: “New Orleans has never had better hurricane protection.” Since the last protection system the Corps built here failed disastrously at more than 50 locations, one cannot imagine setting a lower bar for self-congratulation.

As environmental reporter Bob Marshall revealed half a decade ago, the current system is actually designed and built to an even lower standard than the setup that collapsed in 2005 (although it was built better than that old patchwork “system in name only”, to quote the Corps’ after-the-fact admission). That lower standard was the result of a devil’s bargain between the George W. Bush Administration and a city government desperate to draw New Orleanians back home. The bargain was this: since a “1-in-100 year” standard was the minimum for a community to qualify for federal flood insurance, and since the city had to assure possible returnees they could be insured, that lower standard is what we got. By contrast, the Netherlands builds to deal with an event that has a 1-in-10,000-year chance of occurring.

You don’t have to be a cynic to believe that a critical mass of New Orleanians will not, once again, go through the years of deprivation, bureaucratic frustration, and bereavement to rebuild. A system that will not protect us without an infusion of another billion is, history tells us, going to need more and more billions to keep it from falling victim to its own inherent weakness — which is the Corps’ traditional solution, a series of hard, big, static objects standing between us and an increasingly dynamic environment.

It is not the only way, and the Corps is not the only agency to whom we can turn.

Here is a fact: all Corps civil-works projects, per the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, require a local co-pay; the Corps cannot shoulder the whole cost of its fine work. This gives local or state government a crucial lever.

Here is a theory: We can refuse to buy in.

The Corps, according to Dr. Bob Bea at UC Berkeley who once worked for the agency, was hollowed out in the 1980s. It is, he says, no longer a “corps of engineers”, but rather a “corps of contract administrators.” It sets design parameters, then hires contractors to do the actual work.

Other agencies, less compromised by their history and their stubbornly narrow approach to problem-solving, can set design parameters and hire contractors. We in New Orleans, thanks to the arduous efforts of lots of dedicated volunteers — many of them women — reformed our formerly dysfunctional local levee boards. We formed East and West Bank levee authorities composed of highly competent professionals — hydrologists, geologists, et al. The Corps trusts these authorities to maintain its system; once it was built, the agency turned it over to them.

So, after refusing to co-pay for any new Corps project, could we not say to Capitol Hill, “If the Corps trusts our Levee Authorities, why shouldn’t Congress?”

It’s important for us to be aware of the big picture. It’s not only New Orleans the Corps has failed. According to the recent book “Paving Paradise,” the agency was tasked with enforcing the “no net loss of wetlands” provision of the 1973 Clean Water Act in Florida. The result, over the ensuing decades: a massive net loss in wetlands, propelled by the Corps decision to redefine applicants for development permits as its “clients” and its enforcement duties as “client service”. Along the flood plain of the Missouri River in the Upper Midwest, a historically high river and water releases from Corps-controlled dams is teaching local farmers that the agency prioritizes barge traffic over flood control. Back in Florida, the agency helped spur policies and projects that seriously degraded the Everglades. And, as with the Los Angeles River — an “occasional river” which the Corps entombed in concrete following a 1937 flood — the organization got paid to, in effect, nearly destroy something, and is now getting paid to try to restore it. You could call that a business model.

We can do better. Given the existential threat to this amazing, historic city, we should. It’s time to tell the US Army Corps of Engineers, “Thank you for your service. Please stand down.”

Comedian, musician, author, actor and commentator, Harry Shearer is the host of the public radio broadcast “Le Show,” the satirical review of the week’s news syndicated internationally. Among many film credits, Shearer wrote and directed 2010’s “The Big Uneasy,” an award-winning documentary investigating Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Shearer is a member of The Lens’ board of directors.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.

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