Corps chief admits to 'design failure'

Thursday, April 06, 2006
By Bill Walsh
Washington bureau

WASHINGTON -- In the closest thing yet to a mea culpa, the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged Wednesday that a "design failure" led to the breach of the 17th Street Canal levee that flooded much of the city during Hurricane Katrina.

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock told a Senate committee that the corps neglected to consider the possibility that floodwalls atop the 17th Street Canal levee would lurch away from their footings under significant water pressure and eat away at the earthen barriers below.

"We did not account for that occurring," Strock said after the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing. "It could be called a design failure."

A botched design has long been suspected by independent forensic engineers probing the levee failures. A panel of engineering experts confirmed it last month in a report saying the "I-wall" design could not withstand the force of the rising water in the canal and triggered the breach.

But until Wednesday the corps, which designed and oversaw construction of the levees, had not explicitly taken responsibility for the mistake.

"We have now concluded we had problems with the design of the structure," Strock told members of the subcommittee that finances corps operations. "We had hoped that wasn't the case, but we recognize it is the reality."

Experts from the National Science Foundation, the external review panel for the corps, said potential problems have been known for some time. They cited a 1986 corps study that warned of just such separations in the floodwalls.

But Strock told the panel that the corps was unaware of the potential hazard before Aug. 29, when Hurricane Katrina drove a massive surge of water against New Orleans' storm-protection system. He said the corps is evaluating all the levees to see whether they, too, could fail in the same way.

"There may be other elements in the system designed that way that may have to be addressed," Strock said.

A lawyer who has filed a class-action lawsuit over the levee failures said Strock's statement may mean little for his case because the corps is generally immune from legal liability by virtue of a 1928 law that put the agency in the levee-building business.

"The words are heavy and important," Joseph Bruno said. "The problem is legal impediment called immunity. It was tort reform that began in 1928."

However, lawyer Mitchell Hoffman, who also has filed a lawsuit against the corps, said it could help his case, which seeks to sidestep the corps' immunity by alleging the levee failure amounted to a massive government seizure of peoples' homes and land.

"It simplifies the case significantly because we don't have to have a battle of experts," Hoffman said. "Now the judge can say because of the enormity, it was a taking and the government needs to pay these people for their property."

Under questioning from Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Strock also told the committee that the stunning $6 billion increase in the price of levee protection announced last week was prompted by a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to certify the levees to national flood insurance standards.

Strock said FEMA asked the corps what it would take to make the levees strong enough to withstand a 100-year flood, the standard government level for protection.

"Six billion dollars was our preliminary estimate," Strock said. "That number should come down somewhat."

However, Strock could not say when he might be able to fine-tune the estimate. Timing is critical because the Bush administration is evaluating how much money to request from Congress for more levee repairs. Without a White House request, FEMA says it can't release flood maps that tell property owners whether it is safe to rebuild.

Landrieu has threatened to hold up all presidential appointments to executive branch agencies until the White House issues such a request. Louisiana lawmakers hope to include any new levee financing in the pending emergency supplemental spending bill for hurricane recovery and the war on terrorism. The bill passed a Senate panel Tuesday and is expected to reach the floor by the end of April.

. . . . . . .

Bill Walsh can be reached at bill.walsh@newhouse.com or (202) 383-7817.

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