Corps of Engineers wins flood fight during Gustav

Walton Joseph Landry
August 30, 2008
Patty Mancuso Pittman
September 15, 2008
Walton Joseph Landry
August 30, 2008
Patty Mancuso Pittman
September 15, 2008

No breaches. Limited brash talk. No “no word” from the Army Corps of Engineers. Few foul ups. Clear risk analysis. And the flood fight got done during Hurricane Gustav.

Under a microscope since the catastrophic failures of Hurricane Katrina, the corps partly redeemed itself during Gustav’s dangerous onslaught of the Louisiana coast on Monday.

“They did better,” said Ray Seed, a University of California-Berkeley levee expert and corps critic who investigated flood protection after the Katrina disaster in 2005.

He said the agency, often criticized as arcane and controlled by interests beyond the public good, was open and frank this time around, troubleshooting problems and staying actively engaged in defending the ramparts of New Orleans.

The corps had a lot of ground to make up since Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, and caused levees to collapse, New Orleans to flood and virtually wiped out neighboring areas like St. Bernard Parish.

“I’ve seen a change in the corps,” Seed said. “You’ve got to hand it them – they did a good job.”

Katrina was possibly the lowest point in the corps’ 200-year history, exposing gremlins like pork-barrel politics, tight budgets and substandard engineering manuals. All led to Katrina’s flood, one of the world’s worst engineering failures.

During Katrina, top corps officials were not on the ground. The New Orleans district was run by a fresh-in-town colonel who’d barely settled into his own house. Basic essentials like sandbags, pumps, helicopters and state-of-the-art communications were missing.

And Mother Nature won big time – flooding nearly everything but the sliver by the river – the French Quarter, Bywater, Algiers and Uptown. In all, about 200,000 homes went under water as deep as 12 to 14 feet.

Not again.

This time, the corps’ top general, Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, bunkered down and weathered the storm along with the rank-and-file. Helicopters capable of dropping 1-ton sandbags were on standby. Back-up contractors were on call. And corps officials were present – inspecting overtopped floodwalls and tracking down reports of trouble. And they were talking to news organizations and the public.

As Gustav waned, levees, many rebuilt at a cost of $2 billion with improved standards of engineering, had held. Some non-federal levees on the coast were overtopped and water lapped for a time over the top of the Industrial Canal in New Orleans.

But the corps-built structures held.

And a sigh of relief went up from the corps.

The corps’ commanding general said the city “dodged a bullet.” A colonel in charge of New Orleans’ reconstruction called it “lucky” the storm wasn’t more fierce.

It’s hard to compare hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. While both were Category 3 storms as they approached the Louisiana coast, Katrina’s storm surge, set in motion when it was a Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, bested Gustav by 15 feet or more.

“During Katrina, there wasn’t anything the corps could do,” said J. David Rogers, an engineer and levee expert at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. Rogers is studying New Orleans’ intricate deltaic system of levees, river basins, manmade water diversions and wetlands.

“The breaks were so catastrophic in Katrina all they could do was hunker down like someone in Berlin during the Allied air strike on Berlin,” Rogers said. “They didn’t have an active system like they have today. They didn’t have the gates and the pumps to operate on the canals. It was a passive system.”

The huge pumps, installed after Katrina, appear to have performed with few problems. They were position on key canals to force-pump water away from the city and into Lake Pontchartrain.

But perhaps in Gustav’s wake, the corps partially proved to a skeptical world that it can make New Orleans an American Amsterdam.

On one important condition: It must be as well-funded and finely greased as it is today, three years after Katrina.

Since Katrina and in the run-up to Gustav, Congress has given the corps lavish amounts of money – to the tune of $14.8 billion – to spend on New Orleans’ interlocking system of mechanized canal gates, earthen ramparts and neighborhood pump stations.

Besides that, money from Congress and state government has been injected into a wide-set of resources – better tide gauges, better ocean-bottom mapping, more salaried levee personnel – and all of that, too, has bolstered Louisiana’s ability to predict and prevent catastrophic damage from hurricanes.

“The political will has to be there to make it safe,” Rogers said. “Typically we see the money getting thrown at these things after the big disaster, not before.”