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By satirist Harry Shearer, who recently took two years off from comedy to direct “The Big Uneasy”, a documentary about the investigations into the 2005 New Orleans flood
Within hours of the landfall of Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was telling his homeboy anchor Brian Williams that he was going to get on the phone to the President and request the Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a plan for protecting the Jersey shore. If he hasn’t yet placed that call, he might want to give it a second think.
And a first read. For starters, he might look up two forensic engineering investigations into the New Orleans flooding disaster of 2005, known popularly as “Katrina”. The final reports of those probes, the ILIT report from UC Berkeley and the Team Louisiana report from LSU, are here and here. Conducted simultaneously but independently, the investigations agree on the major culpability for the disaster resting on four-plus decades of engineering mistakes, miscalculations and misjudgments made by the US Army Corps of Engineers, in designing and constructing a “hurricane protection system” mandated by Congress after the devastation of an earlier storm. In the words of one of the co-authors of the Berkeley report, the New Orleans flood was “the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl.”
The Corps’ own chief official at the time, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, actually took responsibility for the failure, in a press conference in late May, 2006. Within two months, he had, or had been, retired.
A second piece of recommended reading for the Governor would be the voluminous opinion by federal judge Stanwood Duval in Robinson et al v. United States, the first case to come to trial involving the flooding. In that opinion–first upheld by a three-judge appellate panel, then more recently reversed by the same panel (?) –Judge Duval reviewed exhaustively detailed expert testimony and concluded that the Corps exhibited negligence in its failure to heed warnings from within its own engineering staff that the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet it had constructed would, if no serious ameliorative steps were taken, continue to erode and widen its banks, leading to what actually did happen–the catastrophic funneling of storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico straight into the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, and suburban St. Bernard Parish.
The 2005 flooding, contrary to the impression held by most Americans, was not limited to areas occupied by poor African-Americans. Eighty percent of the city was under feet of water for up to six weeks. One hundred percent of St. Bernard Parish was inundated. Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed. Estimates of the economic damage wrought by the disaster range from $75 billion to double that. One estimate of total economic losses generated by the catastrophe is $250 billion. While chaos in the coroner’s office makes a definitive death toll hard to achieve, the consensus figure is that at least 1,800 people died in the New Orleans flood, many of them drowned in their own attics while trying to escape the floodwaters.
Governor Christie might then want to finish off his studies by perusing the report from the US Office of Special Counsel, an agency within DOJ tasked with vetting government whistleblower complaints, regarding the findings of an engineer within the Corps, Maria Garzino. She was responsible for testing and installation of pumps in the new, “improved” +$10 billion system the Corps has constructed in post-Katrina New Orleans. Her findings: the hydraulic pumps continuously failed their pre-installation testing, even when standards were lowered to enable passage; they were installed anyway; and their design defects mean they will fail when they are run in hurricane conditions. The OSC hired an outside consultant to review her findings, and he wrote that they were, if anything, “understated”. That report has been in the possession of the President since June, 2009. The Governor might even suggest that the President read it.
Williams, who has made much of his affection for New Orleans, probably knows much of this material, but if he mentioned it to Christie, that didn’t make air.
Nor is New Orleans the only location to receive this kind of “assistance”. The book “Paving Paradise” covers the more than three decades in which the Corps has had the role of regulator and enforcer of the Clean Water Act in Florida, with particular attention to its role in enforcing the “no net loss of wetlands” provision of the CWA. The result: a major net loss of wetlands. Within months of assuming regulatory authority (this will come as no surprise to NC readers), the Corps decided to define the developers seeking permits to drain and build on wetlands as its “clients”.
Governor Christie, or anyone else reading this material, might well ask, “What’s wrong with the Corps? Is this just typical federal government dysfunction?” Michael Grunwald, now with TIME, wrote a seminal 5-part history of the Corps in 2000 for the Washington Post. He told me that the Corps regards “failure as a growth opportunity.” One clue as to why it continues to operate this way is that it suffers no penalty for getting things wrong, even big things very wrong. To borrow a description the State Department once gave about Afghanistan, and its failure to overcome corruption, the Corps exists in a “culture of impunity”.
Given the massive devastation in the wake of Sandy, there will be a demand from far more quarters than just the New Jersey Governor’s office for protective measures along the coastline. The Corps will eagerly step up to the plate. Their motto, “Let Us Try”, inspires them to build big and expensive projects whenever a local Congressman cites a need. It would be the height of cruel irony if, in the wake of the devastation and suffering along the East Coast, the experience of New Orleans in accepting the Corps’ cocky assurances were repeated.
There are those, in the Crescent City and elsewhere, who advocate instead heeding what the Dutch have learned about living with water (see, e.g., http://dutchdialogues.com/). Following their own devastating flood in 1953, Dutch officials traveled the world for lessons, and they found one in New Orleans, where the famous Wood Pump (named for its inventor, not its construction material) continues to this day to drain rainwater from the city at a prodigious rate. In the years since, Dutch engineers have completely redesigned their system, and are continuing to learn more about, most importantly, unintended consequences of interrupting natural water flow. Most crucially, Dutch systems are designed for a “1-in-10,000-year event”, while the US has just spent $10 billion on a system designed by the Corps for a “1-in-100-year event”.
Before committing to the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of billions the Corps will require for its handiwork, the Governor might consider talking to the experts from a country that’s spent eight centuries learning to deal with the challenge of being substantially below sea level. And so might the President.