Monday, May 22, 2006

When the Bottom Line Is More Important Than Lives

The NY Times had one of the most horrifying articles I've read in a long time. It's a summary of a report prepared in connection with an independent study of what went wrong with the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Many, many people died because the Federal Government and the Army Corps of Engineers built those levees on the cheap.

Most of the major breaches in the New Orleans levee system during Hurricane Katrina were caused by flaws in design, construction and maintenance — and parts of the system could still be dangerous even after the current round of repairs by the Army Corps of Engineers, according to a long-awaited independent report to be published Monday.

"People didn't die because the storm was bigger than the system could handle, and people didn't die because the levees were overtopped," said Raymond B. Seed, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and the chief author of the report, in a weekend briefing for reporters here. "People died because mistakes were made," he said, "and because safety was exchanged for efficiency and reduced cost."

But the message, delivered in some 500 pages, is blistering: The design and construction of the New Orleans hurricane protection system, a project spanning more than 40 years that remains incomplete, was inadequate to protect hundreds of thousands of people in an urban setting.

Dozens of factors contributed to the disaster, the authors state, including political decisions that caused the corps to squeeze miles of floodwalls on too-narrow levees along the city's drainage canals, with sheet piles, the interlocking sheets of steel that anchor the levees, driven to a depth too shallow to block water or the shifting of the mucky New Orleans soil.

All of the factors, they concluded, add up to a culture of inattention that put safety lower on the scale than cost.

The Berkeley study finds fault across the complex web of public and private organizations that should have kept New Orleans safe, from Congress to local levee boards.

As badly as the current regime performed immediately before, during, and after the hurricane, and it most certainly did perform badly, the problems with the levees can be blamed on forty years of mismanagement and inappropriate priorities. The real horror may still lie ahead, as the article points out:

But, they warned, the parts of the system with sheet piles that were too short before the storm and which are built on weak soil are still very much at risk in a future storm.Under similar circumstances in another storm, Professor Seed said, "It may still be a very dangerous system."

How shameful is that? Especially since hurricane season is upon us.

Perhaps Congress might take a few minutes away from their awesome debates on flag burning, official languages, and gay marriage bans to consider a top-to- bottom examination of the Army Corps of Engineers and some serious emergency funding to try to stave off another horrific tragedy.


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