Wednesday, July 11, 2007

On the Wages of Not-Keeping-Your-Eyes-on-the-Ball

A new report examines the flaws in the Army Corps procedures that lead to the New Orleans levee failures. According to the Times-Picayune's story, there was no single, fatal moment of miscalculation:

Rather, the Army Corps of Engineers-financed report, released today, spreads blame over a complex combination of political, economic and engineering decisions made without a routine review of how the individual decisions affected the hurricane protection system as a whole.

"Over the 50-year period of time (that the levees were being built), there was a tyranny of incremental decisions at all levels -- not just by the federal government, but by local and state officials, too -- and over a period of time, those incremental decisions led to the loss of a vision of the project as a system," said Tom Waters, chief of planning and policy for the corps.

The authors emphasize that they avoided placing blame, and in several cases take pains to report that they found no evidence indicating corps officials knowingly made decisions that would weaken the hurricane-protection system. Yet the report paints a picture of the corps failing to employ the best available science on the strength of storms and the height of surge, often because of political and financial obstacles from Congress and local officials, as well as from industrial and environmental lobbies.

And although the corps' top official last year admitted -- unequivocally and publicly -- to "the catastrophic failure with one of our projects," the agency's second-in-command seemed to contradict that famous mea culpa Tuesday, suggesting the agency could not possibly have prevented the levee breaches. Katrina would have overwhelmed the levee system even it were correctly built to the design standards in place before the storm, said Major Gen. Don Riley, the corps' director of civil works, during a news conference about the report.

The Corps has a French motto ("essayons", meaning let us try. Sometimes it seems almost as if they would have done better to adopt the supposed motto of the Bourbons, who were said never to have forgotten anything and never to have learned anything. Let's not give up hope, however, that the Corps will take heed of some of the problems that resulted in the defective levee system in New Orleans.

By the way, the picture is Louis XVI, perhaps the most famous and certainly the least fortunate of the Bourbon dynasty. Or maybe I should have used Louis XIV -- the motto "after me, the deluge" seems to have a certain application in this setting.


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