Watching and waiting
Monday, January 16, 2006
The Army Corps of Engineers promises that it will fix what Hurricane Katrina did to our levee system by June 1, in time to protect us from the storms of another season.
Getting the job done on time isn't enough to reassure metro area residents, though. Our faith in levees was betrayed last August. We need to know -- for certain -- that the quality of the repair job is beyond question, that these levees won't crumble because of inferior materials or flawed design.
Col. Lewis Setliff III, director of Task Force Guardian, says he understands that the corps is rebuilding public confidence along with the levees. "We know the world is watching us," he said. "There is no room for failure."
That ought to be the mantra of every single person involved in this endeavor. Failure is unacceptable, because the lives of those inside the levees depend on the integrity of the floodwalls.
But some of those watching the rebuilding efforts are worried that the corps might be repeating past mistakes in work on the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet levee.
Forensic engineers investigating the levee disaster for the National Science Foundation are questioning the quality of soils being used in the MR-GO levee repair, the ability of on-site inspectors and the design itself.
"It boils down to the right kind of soils, the right kind of equipment and the right kind of people," said Robert Bea, a team member who is a professor at University of California-Berkeley.
He spotted soil that was too sandy in one hands-on inspection, he said. He also said that inspectors might have been overwhelmed by the pace and demands of the job. Another team member worried that the corps is using better clay soils as an outer shell instead of making sure that stronger material is also mixed in to strengthen the levee's core.
Their observations and criticisms are worrisome. The corps used weak, organic soil that was dredged from the ship channel to build the MR-GO levee years ago. The result was a levee that couldn't withstand scouring from the water that overtopped it during Hurricane Katrina.
Col. Setliff says that the corps is taking great care not to repeat that mistake. Although some soils are coming from marsh near the levee, he said the corps is seeking out suitable clay layers and is doing extensive on-site inspections and frequent outside lab work.
"We're taking routine samples and then more samples. We're checking the checkers," he said.
Let's hope that Col. Setliff's faith in the process is well-founded. The corps needs to be exhaustive, even obsessive in overseeing the quality of the materials, work and design of all the repair projects.
The agency also needs to pay attention when experts from the outside raise questions about what it is doing. A forensic engineer's observations would be better heeded on the front end than after a disaster has taken place.
The fact that the world is watching is a very good thing, but only if the corps is listening.