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'Acceptable Risks' 

As a new hurricane season arrives, the Corps of Engineers races to complete an improved flood protection system — and area residents hope that, this time, it will work.

Louis Crovetto bristles with confidence. The nattily attired 77-year-old grandfather is standing in his single shotgun house that sits in a quiet neighborhood in Old Arabi. The house took on more than 5 feet of water when the Industrial Canal floodwall failed during Hurricane Katrina, but today there are new walls and floors, updated electrical wiring, and a freshly painted interior. Crovetto, the self-proclaimed "Sheik of Arabi," is talking about his decision to rebuild the house that his father bought newly constructed in 1930.

'There was never a question in my mind that if I could rebuild this house, that I wouldn't," he says. He furrows his brow and folds his arms to his chest. His eyes sweep the sparsely furnished living room that holds a couple of couches and some photos, not near enough mementos and heirlooms for a man who has spent more than half of his life in this house.

When Crovetto was born in December 1930, this was the house his parents brought him home. At the time, the kitchen was the back room of the house, heated by a potbelly stove. That was where "Tee-Coy" — Crovetto's childhood nickname — took his baths in an old number three tub. When he married in 1947, Crovetto left his boyhood home, but he returned after his divorce in 1983 and began a 22-year renovation project. He finished in June 2005, just three months before Katrina.

It would take more than a federal flood to prevent Crovetto from coming home to Old Arabi. A descendant of the Isleños (Islanders) who first settled St. Bernard Parish from the Canary Islands in the late 1700s, Crovetto survived the 1947 hurricane as well as Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina — the last of which caused him to evacuate for the first time in his life. Each storm brought flooding to St. Bernard, but Katrina was the first to send waters surging through the small house on Friscoville Street.

Crovetto blames the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) for St. Bernard's devastation. Though floodwaters still may roar up that channel, into the Intracoastal Waterway and back into his house, Crovetto nevertheless refuses to elevate his home. The structure, like many others around it, sits in "Zone B" — low-to-moderate risk — according to the National Flood Insurance Program. Under that designation, flood insurance is available but not required. Crovetto doesn't worry about government mandates, but he is concerned about what his neighbors do with their homes.

'Well, my neighbors didn't [elevate]," he says. "And the chances of it flooding again like this are — what? — one in —

He doesn't finish the sentence. He and his neighbors don't know how to finish it. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on the Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System's 100-year Level of Protection plan, a grand flood-protection scheme that includes a host of smaller projects, it's difficult to say exactly where metro New Orleans really stands at the outset of the 2008 hurricane season. The plan has a 2011 completion date, but that's just a target. No one knows whether 100-year flood protection will be a reality until it's achieved — if ever.

In some ways, things differ little from life before the storm. The Corps and other experts reassure the public that we are well protected. Though the system is incomplete and not yet fully funded — much like the former Hurricane Protection System that produced 40 years of unfinished construction and the worst flood in U.S. history — Corps officials say they are prepared for the advent of the 2008 hurricane season.

What has changed is the level of public confidence. Crovetto, like so many others, withholds judgment for now. He suspects that the press releases and the upbeat pronouncements don't tell the entire story — a suspicion fueled by past levee and floodwall failures. At the same time, he searches for some level of comfort "from what they tell me."

'But," he adds quickly, "what they tell you isn't always the truth."

During a recent teleconference on the state of hurricane protection and levees in New Orleans, Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Corps' Mississippi Valley Division, is adamant in his assessment of the current capabilities of the agency's new hurricane and flood protection system.

'The Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System is stronger and better than pre-Katrina," he says.

Walsh bases his appraisal on post-K construction projects as well as efforts by the Corps to correct past mistakes. One of the most glaring historical errors, according to Lt. Col. Murray Starkel, deputy commander of the Corps' New Orleans District, was the practice of authorizing, funding and building flood protection projects incrementally, as separate projects, based on available funding.

'What we're doing now is treating it as a system," Starkel says.

That "system" of 100-year flood protection is supposed to cover five parishes — Orleans, Jefferson, St. Charles, St. Bernard and Plaquemines. It is daunting in size and scope:

350 miles of levees and floodwalls

68 pumping stations (federal and non-federal)

Four gated outlets

The Inner-Harbor Navigation Canal (Industrial Canal) surge protection project, which will create a surge barrier at the confluence of the MR-GO and the Intracoastal Waterway, is the largest design/build contract in Corps' history; it will cost $695 million.

Approximately 325 construction contracts, of which more than 150 have been awarded at a cost of $2.1 billion. Forty-seven of those contracts, worth a total of $1.4 billion, are currently under way. The Corps anticipates awarding another 40-plus contracts in the foreseeable future, including more than 30 contracts for levees, floodwalls and levee armoring, three contracts for pump station repairs, and three contracts for interior drainage projects.

A total cost estimate of $14.6 billion (combined federal and state shares), of which $7.1 billion has been appropriated thus far. Another $5.8 billion could come via current versions of the Emergency Appropriations Supplemental Bill that is winding its way through Congress.

In designing and implementing the new 100-year plan, the Corps also seeks to address the old system's fundamental flaws — particularly those noted by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). ASCE conducted an external review of the post-Katrina Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET), a much-criticized internal Corps investigation into the levee failures. Although some have questioned the relationship between the Corps and ASCE ('Someone to Watch Over Them," Gambit Weekly, April 22, 2008), the ASCE review panel did reach a critical conclusion: the Corps underestimated hurricane strength when designing area levees. Thus, the review noted, levees were too low and unarmored; the margin of safety wasn't high enough; there was no comprehensive external peer review; and the interior pumping system was designed for flood control — not hurricane protection.

Using newer storm data, and taking into account soil subsidence and the possibility of water overtopping levees, the new system calls for higher and stronger levees and floodwalls. Many current projects focus on this aspect of the new system. Those projects are all around us: on the East Bank in St. Charles and Jefferson parishes, along the New Orleans lakefront, in eastern New Orleans and along the Industrial Canal; and on West Bank in Algiers, along the Harvey Canal, in Westwego, and along the Company Canal and Lake Cataouatche.

Starkel says the new flood-protection plan's higher standards include deeper driving of sheet metal, replacing failed I-walls with more stable T-walls, using more steel in floodwalls, and armoring levees.

'The standard takes into account a much more robust system for floodwalls, including erosion prevention on the backside, because no matter what we build, Mother Nature is going to find a storm that is probably going to send water over the top of that floodwall," Starkel says. "This takes into account all the way to the top of the floodwall, the wave action, the dynamic and static loading — it's just a much stronger, more robust system."

The new floodwall and levee standards already have generated criticism, however. Recent reports of seepage near a "repaired" 17th Street Canal levee and floodwall have raised fears in Lakeview. Dr. Bob Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says the Corps is still using an inferior design system. Bea has called for outside review of Corps projects. He also serves on a levee investigation team for private plaintiff attorneys who are suing the Corps. The Corps says it welcomes outside review of the seepage issue.

Meanwhile, the Corps also has begun storm-proofing 32 existing interior drainage pumps in Jefferson and Orleans parishes. The goal is to make area drainage systems more hurricane-ready and not counterproductive during a major storm. The ongoing work includes repairs to non-federal pump stations (18 are complete, seven are in construction and five are in design phases); funding for five pump station safe houses in Jefferson Parish; and construction of temporary floodgates in Orleans Parish to protect against Lake Pontchartrain surge in the city's three outfall canals — the London Avenue, Orleans and 17th Street canals.

The temporary floodgates at the outfall canals, which are scheduled to be replaced by permanent structures and lakefront-area pumping stations by 2012, have raised concerns that if the gates are closed during a storm, there won't be enough pumping capacity to get rainwater out of the city. The Corps has added temporary pumps to the existing gates and says relatively little pumping capacity will be lost if the gates have to be closed during a storm. Even so, engineer and Corps watchdog Matt McBride says the Corps has not properly tested the temporary pumps to make sure they will work when needed.

Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), agrees with the Corps that hurricane protection in southeast Louisiana is stronger today than ever. Graves, who serves at the pleasure of Gov. Bobby Jindal, adds that Jindal has taken more interest in flood protection than his predecessors. As proof, he points to $300 million that Jindal got lawmakers to dedicate to hurricane protection and coastal restoration during a special session in March.

Graves says his office is working with lawmakers to accelerate coastal restoration and protection efforts by authorizing the sale of bonds backed by future offshore mineral royalties. If the bond financing mechanism works, the $300 million that Jindal and lawmakers dedicated earlier this year could increase many times over.

Graves hopes to see state funds take coastal parishes beyond the federally mandated 100-year level of protection. CPRA completed a master plan last year that Graves says "contemplates" a higher level of protection. To make it happen, the state could supplement federal funds, for instance, to build floodwalls that provide 500-year protection.

Unfortunately, Graves says, his office is still waiting for the Corps to finish its congressionally mandated "Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Study," which already is a year overdue. As the new federal flood protection plan progresses and individual projects are undertaken, time is running short for the state and the Corps to collaborate on the higher levels of protection Graves would like to see.

'The state would like the Corps and state to have a common vision," Graves says, adding that the Corps' study is supposed to be finished by the end of this year or early next year. At that time, CPRA and the Corps can try to fashion a compromise document supported by both agencies.

Another concern of Graves is the short time frame in which the feds want Louisiana to pay its share of the new flood protection plan's total cost. Congress is currently debating two versions of a supplemental spending bill, both of which authorize $5.8 billion in funds for the plan. The Senate version, however, reduces the state's share from $1.5 billion to $1.3 billion — and it gives Louisiana 30 years to pay that share. The House version keeps the higher state share and requires payment in just three years.

Graves is optimistic that the Senate version will pass, but he adds that if it doesn't, "Louisiana's coastal restoration efforts will come to a near complete standstill for the next five years."

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu has been quarterbacking efforts to get the Senate's version of the supplemental bill passed, and aides in her office say they are confident the Senate version will prevail. But many, including some Louisiana Republicans, fear that President Bush will veto the bill for reasons unrelated to coastal protection or its costs. The bill also contains a GI education provision that Bush opposes.

The good news is that the president included $5.8 billion for hurricane protection in his Fiscal Year 2009 budget. The bad news is that, because of the presidential election this year, Congress might not approve a budget until after a new president is elected and sworn into office. Thus, funding for large portions of the flood protection plan could temporarily run short, delaying the entire project.

Meanwhile, Landrieu has inserted language into the pending supplemental appropriations bill that directs the Corps to examine several options supported by local officials and residents. Those options include paving and lowering the city's outfall canals as a means of permanently addressing storm water runoff in New Orleans, getting rid of some interior pump stations, and implementing Jefferson Parish's "Pump to the River" plan to discharge storm water directly into the Mississippi River rather than the 17th St. Canal.

Tom Jackson, a member and former chair of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (the consolidated East Bank levee board), says that the Corps has resisted those options because they will drive up the overall cost of the new federal flood protection plan and take longer to implement. Moreover, Jackson says, the Corps knows that these options represent better engineering solutions. The problem, he says, is that they are presently beyond the Corps' budget — and cannot be completed by the target deadline of 2011.

'I told them that those were the same words that we all heard after Betsy as to why the decision was made to put I-walls at the outfall canals instead of T-walls," Jackson says. During Katrina, the I-walls along the London Avenue and 17th Street canals failed. The T-wall along the Orleans Canal held.

Corps and state officials agree that the "funnel" in eastern New Orleans where the MR-GO and Intracoastal Waterway meet remains one of the most vulnerable areas during a hurricane. While the Corps has replaced failed I-walls with stronger and better-engineered T-walls, armored levees and strengthened transition points, I-walls will remain at that weak spot for at least another year. Meanwhile, nothing can prevent a wall of water surging up those two waterways and flooding St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans.

'I think the Achilles heel of the protection system is right now the golden triangle: the confluence of the MR-GO and the [Intracoastal]," says Graves. "You had 28 feet of water there during Hurricane Katrina. You had a funnel."

While Graves and Starkel say they would be willing to live in the areas most affected by the golden triangle — the Lower Ninth Ward, eastern New Orleans, Gentilly and St. Bernard Parish (including Crovetto's Old Arabi neighborhood) — both men sound the familiar alarm of "personal responsibility" in the face of an approaching storm. Such warnings have become boilerplate in this age of planning for future evacuations and decades of rebuilding, but they also infuriate people like Crovetto, who considers the government responsible for his neighborhood's exposure to destructive storms in the first place. It was government, after all, that built the MR-GO.

'It was ridiculous when they cut across Shell Beach, one of the better parts of St. Bernard Parish," Crovetto says. "There was absolutely no reason to do this. I blame the federal government and the Corps of Engineers for making the mistake that they knew was a mistake. And they knew the potential hazard of a Category 5 hurricane."

Early supporters of the MR-GO included not only the Corps but also maritime interests across southeast Louisiana, who predicted the waterway would trigger an explosion in port-related commerce. Critics of the MR-GO say that has not happened. All agree the waterway has been an environmental disaster of the highest magnitude. U.S. Sen. David Vitter has championed efforts to close the waterway, and he helped secure funding to that end. At least two current Corps projects — one in eastern New Orleans and another near Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish — represent the first steps toward the MR-GO's closure.

For Starkel, who is retiring from the Corps at the end of June to start a coastal restoration firm, living in areas such as Old Arabi comes down to an individual's acceptable level of risk. He says that while homes in such communities "may get wet" in future storms, he thinks that the system today is more resilient overall and will prevent the kind of destruction that Katrina wrought.

'The key point here is that risk is an individual decision, and the amount of risk people are willing to tolerate is very much a personal decision," Starkel says. "I have a high-risk tolerance. I jump out of airplanes — it's part of my career. It's part of being in the Army. I go to combat zones and get shot at."

Crovetto, at age 77, says he shouldn't have to choose between his personal safety and his home. Yet, as he stands in his house, he recalls daily routines from his youth in the 1930s and points to rooms that remind him how much death is a part of life. "Man, I was raised here. My grandfather died in a chair in that bedroom. My mother died here."

Crovetto's children left Old Arabi. His daughter relocated to Houston after the storm. One son resides in Metairie and another son, who lives St. Bernard, says he'll move to Mississippi when he retires. Still, Crovetto can't see himself being anywhere else but on Friscoville Street, and he hopes that his government will eventually provide his community a level of protection that he feels it deserves. For now, he's willing to take his chances.

'There's an old saying: "We'd rather be dead in St. Bernard than alive anywhere else in the world,'" he says.

Finishing his sentence with a proud, contented smile, Crovetto leads his visitor to a back bedroom to show off his latest handcrafted project — a new chest of drawers.

Correction

In the Summer Restaurant Guide (June 3), Taqueria Rio Grande's address was printed incorrectly. The restaurant is at 3320 Transcontinental Drive in Metairie. It is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.

click to enlarge Wall monoliths under construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. - U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Wall monoliths under construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
click to enlarge Louis Crovetto is rebuilding the home where he grew up, which took on 5 feet of water after the levee failures. - DAVID WINKLER-SCHMIT
  • David Winkler-Schmit
  • Louis Crovetto is rebuilding the home where he grew up, which took on 5 feet of water after the levee failures.
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