By now it is abundantly clear that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intends to stick New Orleans with the fatally flawed floodwalls the Corps designed and built along the city's three outfall canals — at London Avenue, Orleans Avenue and 17th Street. No New Orleanian who lived through Hurricane Katrina will ever forget that the London Avenue and 17th Street canals catastrophically failed during the storm, playing a part in flooding tens of thousands of homes and killing more than 1,000 people. We also know that, in the wake of the storm, the defective floodwalls have not been fully repaired but merely patched where they failed. That is unacceptable.
Col. Robert Sinkler, commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, made the Corps' position known at a recent meeting with the New Orleans City Council's recovery committee. Sinkler told council members that because of the interim gates near the mouths of the outfall canals, the interior floodwalls are no longer part of the federal flood control system — and the feds therefore are no longer responsible for them. To make sure we understood Sinkler's comment, Gambit asked the Corps for clarification. We were told via email that operation and maintenance of the outfall canal floodwalls are the responsibility of the nonfederal sponsor, which means the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. That's news to Tim Doody, president of SLFPA-East's board of commissioners. "Those walls have not been decommissioned," Doody says. "They are still part of the federal system."
During the same council meeting, Sinkler added that Corps civil works projects are "typically" turned over to locals for operation and maintenance upon completion. Sinkler has commanded the hurricane office only since May, so perhaps he doesn't understand there's nothing "typical" about those canal floodwalls other than their defective design and construction. New Orleanians should not have to take ownership of an inferior federal product.
It has been suggested that the Corps will make $90 million in repairs to rehabilitate and refurbish the floodwalls, which will somehow prevent future breaches. Baloney. It doesn't take an engineering degree to recognize that when you put the equivalent of Band-Aids on floodwalls that ruptured in multiple places, there is no way to guarantee those floodwalls, some of which still have the substandard "I-wall" design, will ever be made foolproof.
The safest approach is to start from scratch, and in this case, that means adopting the plan known locally as "Option 2A," which includes permanent pump stations at the end of the three outfall canals. This plan also would remove the floodwalls and levees along the outflow canals and then deepen and pave the channels, allowing water to use gravity to flow to the lakefront. Some older New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board interior pump stations no longer would be needed; the permanent lakefront pumps would become all-purpose, year-round pumping stations. Additionally, the plan would add a pumping station in Old Metairie to send water directly to the Mississippi River.
Unfortunately, in September, a U.S. House and Senate conference committee rejected an amendment co-sponsored by Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter that would have directed the Corps to conduct a peer-review study with cost estimates for this and other options. Landrieu blamed the Corps for lobbying against the study, and she vowed to amend other bills to incorporate it.
We support Landrieu's idea of modifying another bill to include the study, but we also think it's time for the Louisiana delegation to beat the Corps at its own game. The Corps loves to say it can only do what Congress authorizes, a posture that allows the Corps to claim it doesn't have the authority to build Option 2A. If that's the case, then our delegation should work with other members of Congress to direct the Corps to take full responsibility for the floodwalls it builds — as part of the region's federal flood protection plan — and to take all possible steps to prevent future breaches, including a full study of Option 2A. There must be no doubt that the feds are responsible for the local floodwalls.
We hope that once the Corps realizes it must build a holistic flood-control system, it will recognize the need to tear down those walls, not put $90 million worth of lipstick on them while leaving Louisianans in jeopardy, and proceed with Option 2A.