The investigation team led by the Army Corps of Engineers is crawfishing from parts of its report on levee failures during Hurricane Katrina after a crack science and engineering panel released a critical review of its work this week. Among other things, the review charges the corps with worrying too much about protecting itself from blame rather than getting at the root causes of the levee failures that devastated New Orleans and other parts of coastal Louisiana.
A committee of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council blasted the corps-led Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) for saying in a 6,000-page draft report released in June that there was "no evidence of government or contractor negligence or malfeasance":
A determination of whether there were mistakes in structural design and systems performance constitute "negligence or malfeasance" was not addressed in the IPET report and is beyond this committee's charge. "Negligence" and "malfeasance" are terms with strong legal overtones; the IPET studies were designed as technical investigations of structural performance and storm surge risks, not as a legal investigation.
The panel also raises concerns about IPET's rush to produce its report, and it disputes IPET's claim that the identified cause of the protection system's failure -- the formation of a gap between concrete floodwalls and the levees they're anchored in -- wasn't considered because the problem was unknown. The panel points out that the corps researched just such a problem as early as 1988.
Ivor van Heerden, co-director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and a leader of a separate Team Louisiana probe into the levee failures, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that his group had reached the same conclusions about the IPET report:
Van Heerden said the executive summary in the IPET draft "unfortunately seems to try to get into a case of, 'It's not our fault,' rather than really laying out the science. And, as the National Academies report points out, that's not what the research was supposed to do. It was supposed to be giving scientific and engineering data and results and conclusions. . . . Well, to have credibility, the IPET needs to point out where mistakes were made. And it's obvious mistakes were made."
IPET member and engineer Ed Link with the University of Maryland told the paper that the corps was not disputing the review's findings and had already begun rewriting portions of its draft report.
The National Academy's findings come a week after the corps' dropped what MSNBC News described as a "bombshell" on environmentalists with a "little-publicized proposal to relax restrictions on filling in certain wetlands along the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast to speed recovery from Hurricane Katrina":
The Corps' proposal would allow property owners and developers to skirt the conventional "regional general permit" process for any projects that fill up to 5 acres of "low-quality" wetlands in the six southernmost Mississippi counties. Especially galling to environmentalists: The new process would also eliminate the requirement for public notice of such projects.
In other words, the corps would make it more difficult for concerned citizens to track the impact of such development.
Not only was the flooding from Katrina worsened by the extensive loss of wetlands due to development, but the storm itself destroyed thousands of acres of the region's remaining wetlands. You'd think the corps would be taking action to preserve these critical natural resources rather than making it easier to destroy them.
All this makes us wonder: Who exactly is the corps working to protect?