Corps Ignored Critical Data That Could Have Saved New Orleans

The Corps of Engineers ignored critical meteorological data that would have completely changed the nature of the hurricane protection system built in New Orleans. Those changes would have protected some areas of the city and could quite possibly have saved the whole levee system. In the process, the Corps ignored the National Weather Service, they ignored the GAO and then they’ve outright lied to cover their tracks.

Note: Because of the complex nature of this story, I’m going to blog it differently than I normally do. Normally I blockquote things and make my comments. Because this story might be hard to follow (I had to read it 4 times and do some more homework to fully understand it myself) I’m going to rewrite it in chronological order to make it easier on you guys then I’ll give my thoughts. Then in the extended section I’m taking the unusual step of including the full text of the original in case the permalink dies. It is an eye opening read. Kudos to the TP (again) for doing what no other media organization will.

–Start chronological rewrite–

In 1965 Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans and flooded much of the 9th Ward. (upper and lower) Congress then went to the Corps and asked them to design a Hurricane Protection System that would protect against “the most severe meteorological conditions that are considered reasonably characteristic of the region.” (Note: They did not authorize building anything yet)

The Corps of Engineers needed a “project storm” for which they wanted to build protection. They went to the National Weather Service and asked them what the most severe storms that could be expected were. The NWS (then named the Weather Bureau) gave the Corps data from a study done in 1959. In 1959 we obviously had limited understanding of hurricanes.

Using the 1959 data, the NWS produced a hypothetical “project storm” with a maximum wind of 100 mph. They determined such a storm had a 1 in 200 chance of occurring in any year. The Corps (with some revisions) adopted this model. We now know hurricanes get much bigger than that.

So the Corps then goes back to Congress and says, “OK this is what we want to build, do you authorize it?” and Congress then appropriated the money.

Court battles with environmental groups delayed the construction until 1982. The designs for the floodwalls that failed, flooding New Orleans, were not done until the late 1980s early 1990s and the construction was done in the late 90s. (That will be important later)

In the meantime, the NWS does more studies and realizes that their data missed 50(!) tropical storms between 1900 and 1957. (Plus they added storms from the 60s) In June of 1972 they issue another preliminary report updating the “project storm” to have a maximum wind speed of 114 mph and bumped the odds to 1 in 100 years. (What we now call a Cat 3)

The final report was done in 1979 and by then the project storm had winds of 140 mph. (What we now call a Cat 4)

Bizarrely, the Corps never used these updated models, even when they had them. They continued to use the data from 1959 that predicted only 100mph winds.

Incredibly, instead of the Corps using the updated models to increase the level of protection, in some cases they even reduced it. And the Corps not only ignored the data, they even ignored when the GAO called them out for not using it. (I’ll blockquote this part, it’s the smoking gun.)

In a 1982 report to the secretary of the Army titled “Improved Planning Needed By The Corps of Engineers to Resolve Environmental, Technical And Financial Issues On The Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection Project,” the General Accounting Office — now the Government Accountability Office — says: “Subsequent to project authorization and based on the Weather Bureau’s new data pertaining to hurricane severity, the Corps determined that the levees along the three drainage canals which drain major portions of New Orleans and empty into Lake Pontchartrain are not high enough since they are subject to overflow by hurricane surges.”

Other GAO reports indicate the corps actually was lowering its levee heights even as the new science was raising the heights of expected storm surges.

In a 1976 report on the project, the GAO said the corps expected levees to range between 16 feet and 18.5 feet. But by the time the 1982 report was issued, those averages had been dropped to between 13.5 feet and 16.5 feet — even though by then, based on weather service reports, the possible storm surge for the standard project hurricane had been increased to more than 18 feet.

–End chronological rewrite and start my comments–

So after the new data was known and after the GAO even said the Corps had it and knew the design was flawed, they still used the flawed design to build the floodwalls.

And here is where “The Great Lie” comes in. Since the storm the Corps has REPEATEDLY said “Don’t blame us, Congress only authorized us to built levees for a ‘Fast Moving Category 3’.” We now know that’s a big fat hairy lie.

Congress never told the Corps to protect New Orleans from a “Fast Moving Category 3.” For starters, when Congress authorized the project, there was no Saffir-Simpson scale!

Congress told the Corps to protect New Orleans from “the most severe meteorological conditions that are considered reasonably characteristic of the region.” As of 1979 we knew that storm had winds of 140mph making it what we now call a Category 4.

Congress did their job. It was the Corps, not Congress, who decided what was to be built. In effect Congress authorized Cat 5 protection if that is what the NWS and the Corps determined was needed. (Though some may argue that Congress might have balked the cost, the reality is we’ll never know.) Every phase of the project needed to be approved by Congress as it was to be done. Considering the final designs for the faulty floodwalls were done over a decade after the 1979 NWS report, the Corps clearly should have sought approval for what we would now call Cat 5 protection. That didn’t happen. They got approval for “1959” floodwalls.

Imagine if Ford or GM used known flawed crash test data from 1959 to build cars in the late 1990s.

The gross negligence is astounding. They knew the walls were not designed for the weather that was expected. They even knew the design itself was faulty, regardless of the weather.

A reporter asked me the criminal ramifications of this level of malfeasance. I told him I didn’t know, that I was not a lawyer. But if Martha Stewart served time for what she did, this people should be swinging from the gallows.

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Note: Here is the original story. I hope it is easier to follow after my paraphrasing above. I went to bold the important parts but I found myself bolding every line. It’s a meaty story. So I only bolded the super important stuff:

Corps ignored crucial levee data
Reports showed need for higher defenses
By Bob Marshall and Mark Schleifstein

Weather data showing the need to raise the height of levees to defend New Orleans against stronger hurricanes was not incorporated in Army Corps of Engineers designs, even though the agency was informed of the new calculations as early as 1972, government records show.

The heights of floodwalls and levees now [today – 2006! ED] being rebuilt by the corps are based on research for a likely worst-case storm done in 1959. When new weather service research in the 1970s increased the size and intensity of that storm and its projected surges, the corps stuck to its original design specifications when work began in the 1980s, including for structures that failed during Hurricane Katrina.

Corps headquarters officials in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. New Orleans District engineers now involved in reassessing the area’s hurricane protection system said the lack of changes in the past probably can be traced the corps’ legal restriction to building only what Congress authorizes. [There’s that lie again -ed]

“I can only guess, but what I think you’ll find is that since the authorization (in the legislation) never changed, then the people involved felt they couldn’t change” design specifications, said Janis Hote, a corps engineer who, like most of the local staff, was not involved in those earlier projects.

Had the changes been incorporated in corps planning starting in 1972, they almost certainly would have resulted in higher or stronger structures in some areas, hurricane researchers said. Though the project was authorized in 1965, financing problems and court battles delayed much of the construction until 1982, and the designs for many structures that failed during Katrina were not completed until the late 1980s and early ’90s.

It is unclear how much levees and floodwalls would have been raised had the changes been acted upon, researchers said, because interpretations of the changes depend largely on the type of computer models being used to predict storm surge height. However, they agreed the new data would have certainly included predictions of higher water, which would have required higher levees and walls.

“If you increase the intensity of a storm, and you run it on the same track through the same area at the same speed, you’ll increase the (storm) surge,” said Will Shaffer, a storm modeler who designs the storm surge model used by the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center for forecasting and emergency planning.

LSU revisits reports

Staffers at the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, who reviewed the 1972 and 1979 reports produced by the weather service for use by the corps in designing levees along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, estimated the stronger storm outlined in the reports would have raised the so-called “standard project hurricane” to the equivalent of a Category 4, rather than the fast-moving Category 3 generally associated with the 1959 parameters. The standard project hurricane was designed to be “the most severe combination of meteorological conditions that are considered characteristic” of the area.

Hassan Mashriqui, a storm surge modeler at LSU, said the increased intensity outlined in the 1979 report would have raised the predicted storm surge along the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet from 22 feet to 30 feet. During Katrina much of St. Bernard Parish suffered catastrophic flooding when long sections of the 17.5-foot-high MR-GO levee were topped and collapsed by storm surges that the corps has measured at 18.5 feet. [We missed it by 1 freaking foot. -ed]

The Industrial Canal, meanwhile, was topped and collapsed by a peak storm surge that the corps measured at 15.9 feet. That breach destroyed much of the Lower 9th Ward and contributed to flooding in parts of St. Bernard Parish.

It is unclear whether higher floodwalls would have prevented the breaches at the 17th Street and London Avenue canals that put much of the rest of New Orleans underwater. Forensic engineers working with the National Science Foundation have said weak soil layers beneath the floodwalls failed when the canals began filling with water, causing the breaches.

Ivor van Heerden, assistant director of the LSU Hurricane Center and a frequent critic of the corps, said the authorization issue should not have prevented the corps from changing design specifications based on updated information.

“The legislation never mentions a standard project hurricane. That was something the engineers came up with to define the most severe threat,” he said. “There is no reason they could not have changed.”

In 1965, Congress authorized the corps to develop a system to protect the New Orleans area from “the most severe meteorological conditions that are considered reasonably characteristic of the region,” giving birth to the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection project.

Limited range of storms

To determine what those conditions were, the corps relied on a study of worst-case hurricanes developed by the Weather Bureau — today the National Weather Service — for the East Coast and the Gulf Coast. The Weather Bureau looked only at storms that occurred between 1900 and 1957 for the New Orleans area.

That search produced the hypothetical standard project hurricane for New Orleans, which was adopted by the corps, with some revisions, as the basis of its levee and floodwall designs. It had a central pressure of at least 27.6 inches of mercury, maximum sustained winds of 100 mph in a radius of at least 30 miles, and a forward speed of between 4 and 28 mph. And it had a 1 in 200 chance of occurring in any year.

The corps then determined that such a hurricane could create a maximum storm surge of 11.2 feet at locations in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, based on the shape of the lake bottom and ability of water to enter the lake from Lake Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico. Surge heights for other sections, using the same storm data, were 12.5 feet for Mandeville, 11.9 feet for Chalmette, 12.5 feet for the Citrus and eastern New Orleans back levees, and 13 feet in the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes.

The target date to complete the Lake Pontchartrain levee project was 1978.

As meteorological science improved, the Weather Bureau felt compelled to revisit its definition of the standard project hurricane. Improved data collection led to the discovery of 50 more tropical storms than had been counted in the 1959 report.

In June 1972 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a preliminary report making its first update of the standard project hurricane, dropping the pressure to 27.3 inches, which increased the storm’s strength, and increasing the wind speed to 114 mph and the frequency of return from 1 in 200 years to 1 in 100 years.

In September 1979 the National Weather Service issued a final report establishing new criteria for the standard project hurricane. By then hurricane specialists had expanded the list of variables considered critical to measuring storm impacts, including the radius of the maximum sustained winds and the forward speed of the storm. It also changed the way maximum sustained winds were measured.

Those changes resulted in a new standard project hurricane with sustained winds as high as 140 mph, according to van Heerden.

Outdated standard used

Had those new parameters been plugged into the Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring storm intensity that made its debut in 1969, the 1972 changes would have equaled a Category 4 storm with surges between 13 and 18 feet, van Heerden said. The 1978 changes would have pushed the standard project hurricane to a Category 5 level, with surges above 18 feet, he said.

“The corps has consistently been saying the standard project hurricane (in its design documents) related roughly to a fast-moving Category 3 storm, but we can see that is plainly not the case,” van Heerden said. “The Saffir-Simpson scale was in wide use by 1979, but there’s no indication (in the design documents for the projects) that the corps took this into consideration.”

As evolving storm science raised the severity of the threat, the corps continued to use the now-outdated standard project hurricane parameters set in 1959, even as its timeline for construction had been delayed into the late ’90s.

For example, the corps’ 1984 design memorandum for improving New Orleans’ lakefront levees says the engineering criteria are based on the frequency of return of 1 in 300 years, pressure at 27.6 inches, wind speed at 100 mph and a surge of 11.5 feet.

The same references to the standard project hurricane established by the 1965 legislation are repeated for floodwall projects on the London Avenue Canal project in 1989 and the 17th Street Canal in 1990.

The first changes found in the parameters for the standard project hurricane in local corps hurricane projects come with a 2000 plan for the West Bank. The agency’s planning includes the 1979 standard project hurricane parameters, as well as science on the impact of sea level rise to levee heights.

Although the corps’ design documents between 1972 and 2000 don’t reflect awareness of the changes, other government reports related to those projects did.

In a 1982 report to the secretary of the Army titled “Improved Planning Needed By The Corps of Engineers to Resolve Environmental, Technical And Financial Issues On The Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection Project,” the General Accounting Office — now the Government Accountability Office — says: “Subsequent to project authorization and based on the Weather Bureau’s new data pertaining to hurricane severity, the Corps determined that the levees along the three drainage canals which drain major portions of New Orleans and empty into Lake Pontchartrain are not high enough since they are subject to overflow by hurricane surges.”

Other GAO reports indicate the corps actually was lowering its levee heights even as the new science was raising the heights of expected storm surges.

In a 1976 report on the project, the GAO said the corps expected levees to range between 16 feet and 18.5 feet. But by the time the 1982 report was issued, those averages had been dropped to between 13.5 feet and 16.5 feet — even though by then, based on weather service reports, the possible storm surge for the standard project hurricane had been increased to more than 18 feet.

Neither the National Weather Service nor corps officials could shed light on why the changed parameters were not reflected in the corps project specifications. A weather service spokesman said current staffers either were not at the agency then or were uninvolved in writing the reports.

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