When it comes to building 100-year storm protection for New Orleans, ongoing construction has to mean ongoing inspection. Water seeping out of the rebuilt levee and floodwalls along the eastern side of the 17th Street Canal reveals not only possible problems in the design and implementation of the project, but also why outside peer review is essential to any major U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertaking. The 2007 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which contained billions for local flood protection projects, requires independent peer review for any Corps project that costs more than $45 million, when the governor of the affected state requests a review, or when the Corps determines that a project under study is controversial. On paper, WRDA seems to satisfy the widespread calls for peer review, but in truth it applies only to a project's plans — not to its construction or to the final product itself.
Many of the Corps' previous products — levees and floodwalls — were defective in both design and construction, but few knew that until they failed during Hurricane Katrina, causing more than 1,100 deaths and ruining the lives of many more. Going forward, the Corps, the state and local citizens must work together to make sure such a tragedy never happens again. Such collaboration must include external peer review at all phases of Corps projects.
We realize that Congress is not anxious to amend WRDA — or to require comprehensive peer review. It took seven years to pass the 2007 water bill, in part because some members of Congress resisted the idea of peer review in the first place. They claimed — erroneously — that independent reviews would delay vital water projects. Sources inside the Beltway have told Gambit Weekly that these same lawmakers would never support expanding the scope of peer review. In the less-than-three years since Hurricane Katrina, these politicians must have forgotten that extra scrutiny doesn't delay a project; it improves it.
Peer review should occur in concert with a project's conception, development and completion, not as an impediment to progress. Inspectors can work on site, examining and testing ongoing construction and working with project managers to make sure plans are followed as approved — and, when changes are necessary, that adjustments are evaluated quickly. According to Tom Jackson, a veteran civil engineer and a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (the consolidated East Bank levee board), the only time a peer review would halt work is when a project has to be shut down because something is wrong. In such cases, the government should want work to stop. Those of us who survived Katrina should demand higher levels of safety and accountability.
When recent seepage at the 17th Street Canal was discovered, the Corps initially said it wasn't a major problem. But when the Flood Authority asked for an independent investigation, the Corps agreed. That's a good sign. The reviewers will be chosen by the authority and by an official from the state's Department of Transportation and Development. John Barry, author of Rising Tide and a member of the East Bank flood authority, believes this arrangement will set a good precedent.
We hope Barry is right, but history shows that the Corps doesn't always respond well to peer review requests. For example, the Corps and the state recently negotiated a contract for building the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Reduction Project — with no peer review of the construction phase. Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), signed the contract on behalf of the state but admitted later that the document doesn't protect the state against an inferior product. "What [the contract] says at the end of the day is that the Corps of Engineers solely makes the determination of when a project is complete and when it's to be handed over to the state," Graves said. "We can't object and we can't say "no.'"
Yes, we can object; and, yes, we can say "no."
Even if WRDA doesn't call for peer review during construction and a final inspection before the state accepts responsibility for "maintaining" a flood protection project, state officials must demand additional layers of accountability from the Corps. If the Corps refuses, then state officials should let citizens know their lives are being put at risk — again — by a recalcitrant federal agency. They also should take this fight to Washington by telling representatives from other states that their constituents, too, are at risk when the Corps refuses to let independent experts check its work.
Time is of the essence in providing 100-year flood protection, but, as any elementary school teacher can attest, it's not always a matter of getting the work in on time. It's also important to check one's work to make sure it's done right. When it comes to flood protection, the Corps needs someone else to check its work — at every phase.