- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The engineers who designed the flood walls that collapsed during Hurricane Katrina did not fully consider the porousness of the Louisiana soil or make other calculations that would have pointed to the need for stronger levees with deeper pilings and wider bases, researchers say.

At least one key scenario was ignored in the design, say the researchers, who are scheduled to report their findings at a congressional hearing today: the possibility that canal water might seep into the dirt on the dry side of the levees, thereby weakening the embankment holding up the flood walls.

“I’d call it a design omission,” said Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley civil engineering professor, who took part in the study for the National Science Foundation.

The research team found other problems in the city’s flood-control system, including evidence of poor maintenance and confusion over jurisdiction.

Mr. Bea also questioned the margin for error engineers used in their designs, saying the standards — which call for structures to be 30 percent stronger than the force they are meant to stop — date to the first half of the 1900s, when most levees were built to protect farmland, not major cities.

“The center of New Orleans is certainly not protection of farmland, so the factor of safety was incredibly low,” Mr. Bea said. “We’re talking about thousands of families without homes and shutting down a commercial infrastructure that’s pretty darn important to the United States.”

The UC team is one of three independent teams working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for the levees’ design and construction, to determine why the barriers failed and make recommendations to repair them.

Paul Mlakar, an Army Corps of Engineers senior research director, said the Corps shares Mr. Bea’s concerns.

“He raises an interesting question that needs to be looked at,” Mr. Mlakar said. “If something wasn’t done right, we want to be the first to change and make it right.”

Corps officials have said the barriers were never intended to withstand a storm as powerful as Katrina. Congress instructed them to build a network of levees and flood walls that could withstand a Category 3 storm similar to Hurricane Betsy, which flooded New Orleans in 1965. Katrina was a Category 4 hurricane when it came ashore Aug. 29.

But since Katrina’s center passed to the east of New Orleans, there is debate as to whether the city experienced more than the equivalent of a Category 3 storm.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has summoned lawmakers for a two-week special session on 77 topics about the state’s recovery.

To re-balance the state’s budget, the Legislature on Sunday will begin considering using the state’s “rainy day” fund, borrowing cash and offering incentives to state employees who retire early and get off the regular payroll.

The governor also included the option of using a $250 million surplus from the last fiscal year to help the state pay for the staggering costs of repairing buildings and other infrastructure damaged by the storms instead of further deepening the current year’s deficit.

For individuals, lawmakers can consider property-tax breaks and a one-day statewide sales-tax holiday.

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