- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

A team of engineers investigating the failure of New Orleans-area levees yesterday said power struggles among local boards and factions created a “public hazard” and that “malfeasance” may be to blame for catastrophic flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Raymond Seed, team leader from the National Science Foundation, told a Senate panel that the team is still investigating “very disturbing reports of malfeasance” and that some sections of the levees were not constructed as designed.

“We’re seeing evidence in the field that some of those stories might bear fruit,” Mr. Seed said during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

A lack of coordination among groups participating in the New Orleans Flood Defense System (NOFDS) led to differing heights of levees, inferior materials and may have prevented access to some of the breaches, said the preliminary report by the team comprised of the National Science Foundation and American Society of Civil Engineers.

“In our surveys of the NOFDS, it was not always clear which agency had responsibilities for what part or parts of the system,” the report said. “In many instances, it was clear that flooding and breaching of the NOFDS had developed because of breakdowns within the multiplicity of organizations or at their ‘interfaces.’”

“In many cases, multiple organizations were involved and the system was such that any imperfections in the merging of the different elements resulted in vulnerabilities in the overall system,” the report said.

The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for overseeing design and construction of many elements of the NOFDS, but numerous other organizations participate and are in charge of maintaining it, including the New Orleans Levee Board, New Orleans Sewage and Water Board, private property owners and other state and federal agencies.

“Fights over turf, pride and other issues involving public safety need to be stopped,” Mr. Seed said. “It becomes a public hazard.”

“Some not on speaking terms are sharing responsibility for public safety,” said Mr. Seed citing a rift between sewer boards as an example. “These guys don’t get along.”

Dozens of breaches were discovered in the investigation, as opposed to only two major breaches previously reported. Overflows were reported in some areas, while some levees were breached by erosion in poor soil areas. Where one agency’s responsibility ended on the system, the connection system to the next levee was insufficient.

Peter Nicholson, team leader from the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the levee height varied over five different construction phases. “Each individual organization will do as they see fit,” he said. In one location a railroad track and a highway cut through a berm to cross a canal.

“Large sections of the levee system are simply gone” in areas where sand and shell fill were used as an embankment, Mr. Nicholson said.

Panel members said only one entity should have control over levee construction and maintenance, suggesting it be the Army Corps of Engineers.

Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, went a step further and said the state’s levee boards should be disbanded and replaced with a singular state board.

“This will raise political hackles in Louisiana. Because of all the different agencies, one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing,” he said.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and committee chairman, said the investigation showed “a great deal of confusion” among all controlling parties which may have delayed the response to the levee failure.

“It is incredibly important that we pursue organizational issues that will clearly designate an agency to be in charge,” Miss Collins said.

The team also said the existing flood protection is “adequate” for now, as long as residents can be evacuated prior to another hurricane.

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