External Panel Reviews Corp’s New Orleans Levee Performance Assessment

Nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and Southern Louisiana, many important questions remain about the performance of the region's hurricane protection systems. Were the levees built as designed, and if so, did they perform as intended in their design; and how big a role did the interaction between the multiple independent local levee districts have on the system's overall performance?
While expressing overall satisfaction with the work product and progress made to date by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' investigation, performed by the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET), a report issued today by the American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) External Review Panel (ERP)--a group organized to provide independent peer review of the IPET's work--identifies four key areas that require urgent additional attention. Recognizing that most of these key areas fall outside of the IPET's assigned scope of work, the ERP nonetheless strongly believes they warrant immediate and thorough examination.
"We have been, and will continue to provide the IPET with comments, questions and suggestions based on their methodology, work product and conclusions," said ERP Chair David Daniel, Ph.D., P.E., president of the University of Texas, Dallas. "However, despite the fact that some of the critical concerns we have identified fall outside of the IPET's scope of work, the ERP feels it has a responsibility to the citizens of New Orleans and the American people to comment on these fundamental issues and encourage their comprehensive assessment."
The first area of concern deals with the lack of organizational responsibility for the entire hurricane protection system--including the region's 350-plus miles of levees. Responsibility for the levees' construction and maintenance falls on multiple local levee districts, and the responsibility for operation and maintenance of the individual pumping stations falls on individual parishes. The end result is a piecemeal system that can only be as strong as its weakest link. The ERP views any future rebuilding and operation of the levees that does not address this issue as ineffective.
An equally important issue, and one also not addressed in the IPET's scope of work, is the lack of system-oriented strategy for the hurricane protection within the region. The current system evolved over several decades--a series of individual pieces joined together in purpose, as opposed to a robust and resilient integrated system. A system-wide strategy would provide protection for critical elements such as hospitals, electrical generation facilities and emergency shelters, as well as a level of redundancy that could protect the community from complete loss should the levee fail. The ERP believes the absence of this type of strategy in the current system deserves serious additional consideration.
The panel has also identified accommodation for overtopping of the levees as a fundamental system element. Once the levees in New Orleans were overtopped, the destruction was catastrophic and the devastation was complete. To help prevent the tragic loss of life and destruction of capital investment, the ERP feels protection against overtopping must play a major role in the levees' reconstruction.
Lastly, the panel strongly feels that the overall approach to protecting the region from hurricanes must be reevaluated. It is obvious that the hurricane protection system failed catastrophically, and this demonstrates to the ERP a fundamental flaw in its formulation and development. Questions remain about the development of a ‘standard project hurricane’ and its affect on the project's authorized level of protection; about the incorporation of new knowledge and technology into the design safety review processes over time; about adequate funding being provided to ensure the satisfactory implementation of design standards; and about how loss of life was factored into the decision-making process. There is much to learn from such planning and design questions, and the nation--not just the residents of New Orleans--will benefit from further investigation.


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