Friday, April 10, 2009

Keeping watch on the Corps - UPDATED

As hurricane season begins to emerge on the horizon, here are a few articles for you to ponder about the Corps and the levees.

Temporary pumps at Orleans, London and 17th Street canals safe, investigation shows. Parsons, one of the largest engineering firms in the world, was tasked with evaluating, for the n-teenth time, the MWI pumps that have been the source of much controversy. Parsons declared the pumps, within very limited parameters, the most important of which is the speedy replacement of the temporary pumping stations. The Corps originally planned on 2012, but now is planning on 2013. Any delay past that could have serious consequences. Two final notes: first, the link to the full Parsons report (here [PDF]) is now broken, last time I checked and second, I may post more on the Parsons report. If anyone would like a copy of the report, I still have a copy of it in PDF format. I'll just say for now I have some issues with Parsons' report.

Obama appoints new overseer for Corps. We'll see how this plays out. She seems to be more of an environmentalist than some of her predecessors, which might play well for Louisiana's coastal restoration needs. We'll just have to wait and see.

Jury deliberating on Corps bribery scheme. Two contractors for the Corps tried to bribe several Corps employees for confidential bid information to allow them to get a leg up on the competition.

Corps hurricane chief leaving New Orleans. Heading to Afghanistan after a short rotation in New Orleans.

ASCE internal investigation finds to ethical misconduct. Please note Tom Jackson's comments at the end. He's an extremely well respected engineer and New Orleans is lucky to have him as the head of the Easter Levee District. responds: calls probe a "whitewash." I hear the news reports of the conference and they claim that ASCE only investigated one specific complaint out of a 40+ page long letter. I haven't seen the letter posted any where yet, so I'll reserve judgment until I see it. UPDATE- Here's the letter [PDF]. Hosted on the Louisiana chapter of ASCE's website. It also looks like two sets of complaints are being conflated. One complaint is by Dr. Seed (link above). The second complaint is by the founder of a well respected local geotech firm, Dr. Boutwell, that recently passed away. Those complaints seem to be well known and well understood. His report centers on the precise mode of soil failure.

Ivor Van Heerden fired by LSU. This report is really a mixed bag. Tim and Greg have a long history of extremely justified criticisms of Van Heerden. I tend to like his overview of the geology angle and how he breaks complicated engineering matters down for a lay audience. That's one of the reasons the press has latched on to him. His book, The Storm, still has one of the best described, most detailed reports on what needs to be done to fix South Louisiana before it falls into the sea. When Van Heerden stuck with what he knew (primarily geology), he was excellent. His problem is he made himself too much the story (probably with certain members of the media egging him on) and when he did that, he overshadowed some very good work being done by the Hurricane Center, specifically the storm surge modeling. If he lets himself be part of the story more than the science, he probably needed to go. LSU constantly tried balancing academic freedom with pulling Van Heerden back to his core area of expertise and eventually decided it was easier to just fire him. Still, this firing will probably be a black mark on LSU's academic reputation.

NOTE- Updated. See above. Will probably post more later.

UPDATE 2- I realized I've read through Dr. Boutwell's presentation before (part of which is available on this website). His stuff is very straightforward and well supported. As a result, his report was well received and respected.

Dr. Seed's letter is a different animal. My first reaction to the letter was unprofessional. I don't know what audience the letter was intended for, but he was overly dramatic with his presentation of various facts and down right conspiratorial at several junctures. He brings out the Twin Towers investigations, which could be aimed at a very specific, legitimate failure modes that weren't detected on the initial investigations, but could also be conspiracy-theory crap. Injecting irrelevant information like that jeopardizes the credibility of the entire letter.

All that being said, he made some very legitimate observations about Corps behavior that warrants attention. It looks like several specific employees (not named, but described) didn't discharge their responsibilities in an honorable manner. It honestly reminds me of the Corps employees caught leaving threats on the website. The Corps is a large organization, so some bad apples are probably inevitable. The Corps should move quickly to discipline/fire the offenders. I'd be very curious if any of the employees mentioned in Dr. Seed's email are the same ones leaving the comments.

It's a shame that the press is conflating legitimate, scientific inquiry with disreputable comments. It casts a shadow over all those investigating the Corps and lessens the impact of legitimate, scientifically verifiable complaints.


Working link for the Parsons report.

Leaking Metairie Levee. Several investigations into underground canal in Metry. Corps says the problem isn't serious. The engineer with the Levee Board-East says there's not enough data to make a definitive conclusion one way or the other.

2 convicted of bribery in Katrina levee case | National | - Houston Chronicle One of the guilty had to be taken out on a stretcher after he had a heart attack at the ruling.

I've done a little digging and I have one more point: that's the second Corps commander we've lost in a very short time. Usually, they have a 3 year rotation. This is the second one we've lost after only about 6 months on the job. Frequent leadership changes can be a sign of an organization in chaos.

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