Here at the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there continue to be attempts to cast blame on the pre-Katrina local levee districts for the catastrophic flooding on Aug. 29, 2005.
A recent example is an article by environmental reporter Bob Marshall. The point of his article was the new improved inspections of our levees, and we certainly share in his belief that the new inspections are of great value. However, he also wrote that “local levee boards, made up of political appointees, had largely ignored federal requirements to inspect the city’s defenses regularly.”
We asked Mr. Marshall what this statement was based on. He responded in an email that he had spoken to several civil engineers in late 2005. The immediate post-Hurricane Katrina environment was one of shock. It was a time when no one yet knew precisely why the levees had failed. It could not be possible for anyone to fully grasp the complete picture.
In fact, the Orleans Levee District did indeed inspect the city’s defenses. Every year from 1959 to 2004, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave a grade of “outstanding” to the OLD for these activities. All 46 plaques are hanging on the wall at Lake Vista Community Center.
The highly cited “drive-by levee inspections” were actually the corps’ annual inspections of the OLD’s year-round levee maintenance. The annual inspections were 100 percent the corps’ responsibility, not “joint inspections” as Marshall describes them. The OLD did accompany the corps on the drives because the corps considered the annual inspection partly ceremonial ending with lunch afterward.
The levee breaches during Katrina were a pivotal event in American history resulting in policy changes all across the county. The corps rewrote its standards for levee building, which have the end result of making the majority of the American people safer.
In addition, the corps revised its levee inspection requirements for every levee district in the entire nation. Before Katrina, the corps required only one type of levee inspection, visual-only. Now, the corps requires the levee inspections to be more frequent, more uniform and more rigorous. In 2007-08, all corps districts in the country, including the New Orleans district, were trained as part of the new levee inspection system. But, at the end of the day, the adequacy of the corps’ annual inspections and the OLD’s year-round maintenance is not the issue because, as recently reported in the New York Times, none of the major studies reported that inadequate maintenance was a factor in the levee breaks. It would be more beneficial if the focus were on the proven causes of the flood rather than on imaginary ones. Only then can the region be properly rebuilt.
H.J. Bosworth Jr., P.E.
lead researcher, Levees.org