Sunday, September 18, 2011

Review: "The Big Uneasy"

I missed the chance to see The Big Uneasy premier at The Prytania and a lot of other opportunities since, but felt it was pretty important to watch it. I downloaded it off Amazon and just finished it and here are some of my thoughts.

The Big Uneasy doesn't cover a lot of new ground that a local that's read the paper won't know, but it's good to know that a lot of it will reach a wider, national audience. It did a great job of some of the more qualitative issues (addressing "Why don't we move New Orleans?" in their "Ask a New Orleanian" segment), but I was a bit disappointed when it came to some of the more technical aspects. I may have had high standards, but I expected more.

One of the things that constantly annoyed me was little glitches. For example, there's a progression where they show land loss from 1932-2010, but the graphic is wrong. They pulled the graphic from Blum and Roberts (or some derivation thereof, like the Mike Schleifstein writeup) and the progression should have ended in 2100, NOT 2010.

There's another screwup where they're interviewing Ivor van Heerden and he's talking about building on sand horizons in the London Ave. Canal and he's talking about water seepage through sand and he says that sand is a bad foundation because it's not strong enough. Well, actually, sand is a pretty good foundation. It can withstand a pretty hefty load without subsiding, when compared to many other layers you'd encounter in South Louisiana. Now, the larger issue that Ivor was talking about is absolutely 100% correct (water seepage through sand) and that was his main thrust of his excerpt; the structural point was sort of an (irrelevant) aside, but because the editor left the whole interview unedited, it sort of makes the subject look (to technical eyes) like he doesn't know what he's doing, when he (at least in this case) does.

I'm probably being nitpicky, but I'm an engineer and that's just what I'm gonna do. One of the things I was really disappointed in wasn't what was in the movie but what was left out. When talking about LSU, Sean O'Keefe's is never mentioned. There was no real mention of the actual structure of the Army Corps of Engineers (military officials that come and go while 90+% of the Corps are civilian engineers, etc.). Dr. Bob Bea is big on organizational issues contributing to disaster, well, wouldn't it be great to ask Dr. Bea (who had worked at the Corps back in the day) about leadership churn at the Corps?

Another issue is the dynamic between Congress and the Corps. They made the point over and over that the Corps is Congress' pet and they had one good example where they went through all the Congressional websites highlighting all the water-resource bills various congressmen have corralled. I would have like to have seen them go a bit further there.

I'll even lay out a great example for somebody to take: dredge companies. I'd love to see someone look into crooked dredge companies. There are examples out the wazoo. For example, on one coastal restoration project, the dredge company was paid per cubic yard of material dredged, but not on what actually made it to the build site, so they could lose all the material they wanted between Ship Shoal and the deposit site and there was no contractual mechanism to penalize them.

The best example of all on how crooked the dredge companies is the River Dredge Wheeler. Wheeler was commissioned in 1982 after being designed from the keel up for one purpose: keep Southwest Pass open. It was a purpose-built tool designed to maximize efficiency and minimize cost for a very specific purpose. Since it's commissioning, it's been almost entirely unused. It sits in "ready reserve" most of the time next to the ACoE headquarters at Riverbend. You see, back in the early 80's, a group of congressmen (including Bob Livingston, you can fill in the rest of the 'usual suspects') got elected and decided that "the government is obviously incompetent and let's let the free market do everything!" Now, they couldn't just lease the Wheeler to a private operator; that wouldn't result in enough political donations to the politicians. So, they decided to let it out to private dredge companies. Then, embarrassingly, nobody bid; it was too big a job for even a consortium of companies. The Corps then went back, sliced and diced the dredge job into small tranches that private dredge companies could tackle (with huge project management staffs to keep track of everything). This highly inefficient system continues to this day. A few years back, a Dutch company wanted to bring in some ultra-modern dredges and do the job much cheaper than the local companies could do with their antiquated equipment. The dredge companies then squealed like stuck pigs for government protection ("GAH! Jones Act! National Security! DEY TOOK ER JERBS!"). The Dutch, who had plenty of work building the Palm Islands in the UAE dropped their inquiry after a while.

On a related note, after Katrina, there were scores of letters to the editor demanding to "privatize the Corps." What would a privatized Corps actually look like? Wouldn't you still have to have some sort of project management staff to oversee the whole mess?

Dr. Bea does make the excellent point that the Corps no longer has as large a technical staff and that lots of personnel are now outside contractors and a lot of those who remain are more project managers than competent technical professionals. That is, frankly, a criticism you could extend to many, many other industries. Contractors and subcontractors and consultants are a major feature of any heavy industry today. I will say this: you can pull up Karen Durham-Aguilera's CV shows a P.E. licence and a technical Master's. The Vicksburg office of the Corps is still a center of excellence in geotechnical engineering. OTOH, I've also had interactions with Corps employees who couldn't set up a free-body-diagram to save their life.

How 'watered down' has the Corps become? I'm not sure I have an answer, but I'll put forward an idea. On projects I've worked on, when there's a really immense challenge and there's no time to argue over budgets or organizational hierarchies and you get the MBA's to just stand out of the way and let the engineers 'do their thing,' you'd be astounded with the results. In virtually every measurable metric (LTI's, delivery time, and {counter-intuitively} cost), these "Apollo-program" projects outperform the day to day engineering jobs we put together. There's total, bottom-up efforts to get it right. It's very similar to Scott Adams' "Bet on Engineers" philosophy (WSJ Op-Ed here).

The Corps is closed to finishing a major effort to get New Orleans' levee system up to 100-year protection as quickly as possible. How did they do along the way? Well, there are some good things they've done and some not so good things. The Ms. Garzino's faulty pump incident is quite worrying (updated letter here). So is the ongoing issue with debris in some of the levees (and what annoys me the most about that is the immediate 'shoot the messenger'-reaction as opposed to 'gee, maybe we oughta enforce these contractual requirements and penalize some contractors'-reaction). There's also the question of workplace atmosphere that was brought up by the personal attacks on company time issue. I think a commander of the Corps has more to fear from fostering a workplace environment of, say, sexual harassment, than one where technical competency is valued and a good engineering product is turned out.

In the end, the Corps is a big bureaucratic organization. They're not the only one who's had a major engineering disaster, but we'll have to see how they respond. Do they build a better organization or do they fall into the same old traps? It hasn't been settled one way or the other and the proof will be in the pudding (what gets built and how it holds up). I will say this for the critics of the Corps: they only responds to INTENSE criticism. The Corps doesn't really get tact and nuance. You have to whack them in the head with a sledgehammer to get their attention.

Keep paying attention to and Fix the Pumps.

NOTE- Small edits for grammar and spelling.

1 comment:

Leigh C. said...

Wow, I must be one of the few to have seen the Wheeler in action: