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Katrina (some “details”)


In my Commentary “Katrina: Why?”, of September 6, 2005, I wrote: “The technical and POLITICAL answer should come from the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) and from the US National Academy of Sciences. It is about time that the American citizens who are part of these organizations stand up and speak out with honesty and integrity.” I also mentioned that: “Today all soil mechanics engineers, worldwide, respect the contributions and the competence of the US Army Corps of Engineers in the field of soil mechanics”.

Two months after the above Commentary, on November 2, 2005, Peter G. Nicholson, Ph.D., a member of ASCE, testified on behalf of ASCE before the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Nicholson, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, led a team from ASCE that investigated the levee failures in New Orleans. The team had as a task to gather data so that it could evaluate why certain sections of the levee system failed and others did not.

What Nicholson and his team found and describe in a preliminary report is quite interesting. In his testimony he mentioned: “What we found in the field was very different [from] what we have expected, given what we have seen in the media reports. Rather than a few breaches through the floodwalls caused largely by overtopping, we found literally dozens of breaches throughout the many miles of levee system.” [The protection system of New Orleans against hurricanes consists of walls or embankments made of compacted soil.]

Nicholson and his team discovered that there were quite a few types of failure of the walls and of the embankments. These failures were:

- Scour erosion caused by overtopping (i.e. by the water passing over the top of a wall or embankment and washing out the soil on the dry side of the structure).

- Seepage

- Piping

- Soil failure

[Note: There is no need for an ordinary person, a nonexpert, to know the "mathematics" accompanying these technical terms to understand what they mean (i.e., what happens in the soil, the levees, etc).

- Most materials are permeable, especially sandy soils. Thus the water that passes through the soil of the foundation of an embankment or the soil of the foundation of a wall or even through the soil of the embankment itself from the wet side to the dry side of these structures causes all kinds of problems. This is "seepage".

- An embankment or a wall rests on the soil (i.e., the foundation). Sometimes these structures fail because of the sudden formation of a pipe-shaped discharge channel or tunnel located between the foundation soil and the structure through which water rushes from the wet side to the dry side of the structure. This is "piping".

- If one pushes a dry lump of soil with his shoe and breaks it, then he caused a "soil failure".

Can this (simplified) information be of any use to the ordinary persons that constitute the population of New Orleans? I think it can, as I shall try to explain below. End of note.]

So, Nicholson and his team found that the breaches were not solely due to overtopping, as in many cases the water did not reach the top of the wall or the embankment, but to one or more of the above types of failure. These types of failure are mostly due to the materials used (e.g. highly erodible soil used to construct some embankments), the design of the structures, and the correctness of the construction methods.

Finally, a very important discovery by the team was the one concerning the problems that appear in the “transition points”, that is the points where different types of structures meet (e.g. a concrete wall and a soil embankment). These transition points constitute locations of weakness for the entire protection system. Also, the fact that the different types of structures were “designed and maintained by multiple authorities” (a political problem), was a significant factor for the problems at transition points.

Two weeks after Nicholson’s testimony, Larry Roth, a Fellow of ASCE and deputy executive director of ASCE, on November 17, 2005, testified before the Senate Committee on Environment an Public Works regarding the rebuilding of New Orleans levees. Roth mentioned that the Corps of Engineers “began making emergency repairs to the New Orleans levee system in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane… The Corps now has begun making long-term repairs to the levee system.”

As with most huMan affairs, the Katrina affair is a complicated problem. In October 2005 the Nuremberg-level war criminal Donald H. Rumsfeld (a.k.a “US Defense Secretary”) announced the creation of an independent panel of national experts under the direction of the National Academy of Sciences (to which we had appealed in our September 6, ’05 Commentary). This panel, convened by the ASCE as the “External Review Panel” (ERP), was to peer-review the work of another organization: the IPET (Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force).

The ERP was composed of 14 members (13 from the US and 1 from the Netherlands). The IPET, assembled and headed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, was composed of 150 experts from government, academia, and industry and represented more than 40 organizations.

[Note: Mark that Katrina forced Rumsfeld (a pathological egotist) to act "democratically" and ask for the opinion of at least 164 (!) humans besides himself.]

On June 1, 2006 the Corps made public a (nine-volume) 6,113-page IPET report. The title (“Army Builders Accept Blame Over Flooding”) of a New York Times article by John Schwartz, is typical of the media reaction to the report.

Schwartz writes: “The report suggested that the corps has had trouble keeping up with the fast-changing world of geotechnical engineering (or “soil mechanics”, according to the term used in my former Commentary), and does not share critical information among its many parts… More must be done, it concluded, to share information among hose who do research and those who design and build systems”.

Also, he mentions that: Lt. General A. Strock [the chief engineer of the Corps] “did not go so far, however, as to apologize on behalf of the corps for the decades of DECISIONS that went into the system… [Strock said] ‘Call it mea culpa,…, or call it admission…we’re not ducking our accountability and responsibility in this’ … Nevertheless, he (Strock) made it clear that he believed OUTSIDE INFLUENCES had played a role in the problems of the flood protection system, though he said that did not absolve the corps”.(Emphasis added).

Was (and is) the Corps “dysfunctional and unreliable”, as its critics (e.g., engineering experts from the University of California at Berkeley) claim?

To answer that question let us first have a look at some facts:

- The Americans that serve as “soils engineers” in the Corps of Engineers belong to the same sectors of the US society that the civilian “soils engineers” belong to. They are not the (economically and socially) desperate high school kids that consciously choose to become ” professional murderers” by joining the…US Marines, (although they know that, out there, there are no Apaches, or Nazis, or Japs, etc, against whom they have to defend their “fatherland”, but there are mostly Iraqi women and children for the Marines to kill).

- The soils engineers of the Corps attend the same Universities, take the same courses, and get the same degrees as their civilian counterparts.

- “To keep up with the fast changing world of geotechnical engineering” is a personal matter for them (as it is for the civilian engineers). Fortunately for both categories, available to them are the best sources in the world: the ASCE publications and the Transportation Research Board publications of the National Academy of Sciences.

- The engineers in both categories are taught in the US universities (as in the rest of the world) to design systems with the “least possible cost”, they are not taught to take into account the (economic and social) cost of a Katrina-type of failure in the design of a system.

Therefore, in general, there is no difference in the “quality” of the soils engineers of the Corps versus that of the civilian soils engineers.

What about the (claimed) “organizational dysfunctions” in the Corps? An honest analysis of the problem Of “organization” boils down to the question: who is doing the “design” of the system? In reality, it is mostly about half a dozen engineers that are involved in the “substance” of any design (the contribution of the numerous others is only the doing of the tedious work) and even among the half a dozen it is the “top dog” (i.e. the “best” engineer) who has the last word. This holds for both military and civilian organizations. So, if there are no differences in “dysfunctionality” and “unreliability”, where is the problem to be searched out?

The problem (as in all social matters) is found in the following paramount questions: “who is making the DECISIONS?” and “what are the OUTSIDE INFLUENCES?”

The New Orleans hurricane protection system began in the 1960s after Hurricane Betsy flooded the city in 1965. Who made the crucial decisions for that system? The design decisions for the system were made by a few Corps engineers, as described above. To decide on the degree of safety offered by the design the Corps got “its marching orders from members of Congress” (NYT, May 18 ’06), which controls the funding.

Is there an other more rational (and more moral) way to deal with the problem? The answer: “collective decisions” and no “marching orders” by “outsiders” (that is by the Rumsfelds, et al). Which means a “pareconish” solution to the problem.

We have already mentioned the four types of failure of the New Orleans protection system (scour, seepage, piping, and soil failure). No more than 4 to 5 simple sketches accompanied by a brief text describing the degree of safety, cost, etc of the proposed system, distributed to the entire population of the community, would be enough to enable them to participate substantially in the decision making process.

For example, a sketch of the depth of the steel “curtain” driven into the soil under a levee or a wall to avoid “piping” (accompanied by the cost for various depths) could have enabled the ordinary people of the community to participate meaningfully in the decisions. Especially, in the cost versus safety debate. (Which means, in the debate about the cost to feed the US Marines versus the survival of hundreds of thousands of…even black people, in New Orleans).

Is this utopian? It seems it is not. Rumsfeld was forced to involve in a “pareconish” way at least 164 individuals and heed their opinions. That these were engineers does not deny the fact that previously it was only half a dozen individuals who were involved. It is an amazing fact, realized by not many people, that the present design, repair, etc of the hurricane protection system of New Orleans was done (even unintentionally) through a “pareconish” process.

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