Saturday, August 29, 2009

Gulf Coast Still Struggling Four Years After Hurricane Katrina

The widespread devastation from Hurricane Katrina still leaves its mark across the Gulf Coast four years after the massive storm came ashore, killing nearly 2,000 people in the process. Many of those killed were never recovered, but my thoughts and prayers go out to them, their families, and their friends.

The storm completely changed entire cities and communities up and down the Gulf Coast. The devastation was total in many areas, and widespread flooding, particularly around New Orleans caused total devastation around the low-lying areas. Commemorations of the hurricane are taking place up and down the Gulf Coast and around New Orleans.

The slow pace of recovery has long been a sore point, and President Obama vows to speed the recovery, particularly around New Orleans:
Mr. Obama said he had coordinated the recovery effort across federal agencies and state and local governments. “No more turf wars,” he said.

“I have also made it clear that we will not tolerate red tape that stands in the way of progress, or the waste that can drive up the bill,” Mr. Obama said, adding, “Government must be a partner, not an opponent, in getting things done.”

He said his administration had put in place dispute-settlement programs in an effort to speed up the recovery.

In addition, he said, the government had freed up hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance that had not been distributed.

“As we rebuild and recover, we must also learn the lessons of Katrina, so that our nation is more protected and resilient in the face of disaster,” Mr. Obama said.

“That means continuing to rebuild hundreds of miles of levees and floodwalls around New Orleans,” Mr. Obama said, “and working to strengthen the wetlands and barrier islands that are the Gulf Coast’s first line of defense.”
Those levees are still not quite up to snuff.

In fact, nationally, levees are in poor shape because of design and/or construction defects such as those protecting New Orleans, threatening millions of Americans. For all the talk about improving infrastructure, levee and waterworks that protect millions of Americans is undercapitalized. Why this is the case is simply a matter of priorities. Politicians would rather unveil new construction projects than the tedium of constant attention that levees and other water protection projects require.

Then there's the issue of levee reconstruction, which has been hampered by natural conditions, including salty soil that inhibits growth of grass that stabilizes the surface of the levees that prevent erosion. The Army Corps was supposed to rebuild a section in Plaquimines Parish, but they didn't even think to test for salt content. They've missed reconstruction deadlines as a result, putting lives in danger.

Pumping stations that are supposed to divert water away from New Orleans aren't up to snuff either. There are questions about the costly system, and that hundreds of millions of dollars could have been saved using proven technologies.
Citing the corps' $430 million plan to replace the hydraulic pumps by 2012, just five years after they were installed, the special counsel concludes that a "proven" direct-drive pump design would have been less prone to corrosion and breakdowns. Based on an independent engineering review, the counsel says direct-drive pumps could have been purchased "more quickly, more reliably and without planning for pump … replacement."

Hydraulic pumps are powered by pressurized oil. Direct-drive pumps use solid drive shafts.

The findings, previously unreported, were sent to President Obama on June 12.

The investigation confirms "serious allegations about the reliability of the pumping equipment" that were raised in a 2007 whistle-blower complaint by corps engineer Maria Garzino, the letter says. The findings raise concerns about whether a major storm could overwhelm rebuilt flood controls that the corps has set up in New Orleans since Katrina hit four years ago this week.

The corps declined to comment, but corps officials previously have disputed the concerns raised by Garzino, who was a supervisor on the pump project.

"There are still questions about the contracting, design and safety of these critical pump stations," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said about the special counsel's report. The corps must "demonstrate that these structures are indeed safe and will function properly," Landrieu said.

The special counsel's findings are the latest turn in a long debate over the pumps.

The Defense Department's inspector general has reviewed Garzino's concerns twice and ruled each time that the pumps, though not tested as well as they could have been, were a reasonable choice and should provide adequate protection until they're replaced with a more permanent system. Each time, the special counsel, an independent office that investigates whistle-blower complaints, has disputed the Pentagon's conclusions.

It must be restated once again that the disaster in New Orleans was the result of the failure of the levees that were supposed to protect against storm surges. Hurricane Katrina made a glancing blow against New Orleans, hitting further to the East, and the city escaped the damage from the storm as it passed. It was when the backside of the storm forced water back into the various drainage canals that the levees failed - primarily because they were inadequate to the task and improperly designed and constructed. The majority of those killed, and the tremendous damage in New Orleans resulted from the failure of the protection system put in place by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Hot Air also has additional coverage of the anniversary of the landfall along the Gulf Coast, and how much of what people know about happened is wrong.

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