Could New Orleans have been saved for $809,659?
It seems that as time progresses, we are going to continually be apprised of errors and poor assumptions that were reported to us during the days that followed the recent hurricane disaster in New Orleans. Last night, “NBC Nightly News” peeled back the curtain on another misconception that was proffered by most media outlets right after Katrina hit, namely that the poor condition of New Orleans’ levees was the fault of the Bush administration.
Lisa Myers last evening told the nation otherwise:
“NBC news has obtained what may be a key clue hidden in these long-forgotten legal documents. They reveal that when this floodwall on the 17th street canal was built a decade ago, there were major construction problems, problems brought to the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This document shows that the contractor, Pittman construction, told the Corps of Engineers that the soil and the foundation for the walls were not of sufficient strength, rigidity, and stability to build on.”
Her report goes on in some detail with the help of former Army Corps of Engineers workers and college professors to outline that it was known more than a decade ago while President Clinton was in the White House that the earth under many of these floodwalls was not stable enough. A link provided in the text version of this report at MSNBC's website shows the legal decision of the Corps' judge concerning this matter, and that all Pittman wanted was another $809,659 plus an additional 80 days to do the work properly. Their request was denied.
What follows is a full transcript of this report, a link to the Corps judge's ruling, and a video link.
Myers: This thin gray line of concrete floodwalls was supposed to protect New Orleans. But when Katrina hit, portions of the walls came tumbling down, flooding the city.
Prof. van Heerden: This is fairly typical of some of the failures we've seen.
Myers: Professor Ivor van Heerden, an expert on hurricanes and levees, has examined the wreckage.
Van Heerden: These walls underwent catastrophic structural failure.
Myers: But why? NBC news has obtained what may be a key clue hidden in these long-forgotten legal documents. They reveal that when this floodwall on the 17th street canal was built a decade ago, there were major construction problems, problems brought to the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This document shows that the contractor, Pittman construction, told the Corps of Engineers that the soil and the foundation for the walls were not of sufficient strength, rigidity, and stability to build on.
Van Heerden: That's incredibly damning evidence. I mean really, incredibly damning.
Myers: Here's how the wall was built. There already was an earthen levee made of soil. Embedded in that was a thin metal wall, called sheet piling. The contractor then poured concrete on top of all that to form the floodwall. But the 1998 documents, filed as part of a legal dispute over costs, indicate the contractor complained about weakness of the soil and the lack of structural integrity of the existing sheet pile around which the concrete was poured. We showed our findings to engineering experts.
LSU Professor: That type of issue about the strength of the soils, of course, bears directly on the performance of a floodwall.
UC Berkeley Professor: I think it is very significant. It begins to explain some things that I couldn't explain based on the information that I've had.
Myers: The construction company said as a result of these problems, the walls were shifting and out of tolerance, meaning they did not meet some design specifications. Nevertheless, the Army Corps of Engineers accepted the work.
Van Heerden: It seems to me that somebody in authority should really have questioned whether these walls were safe.
Myers: A judge blamed the contractor for the construction errors and turned down Pittman's request for more funds. The company is now out of business. The Army Corps of Engineers tells NBC news that these documents and the issues raised will be part of its investigation into what went wrong. Lisa Myers, NBC news, Washington.