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End the War of Words 

For more than a year, a verbal battle has raged between Levees.org, a local nonprofit group, and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Levees.org has charged ASCE with unethical behavior in its review of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' investigation into the 2005 levee failures. ASCE has responded by threatening to sue Levees.org. It's time to end the war of words and unite behind something on which both groups should agree: support of the proposed 8/29 Commission, which represents the best hope for a thorough and independent analysis of the levee failures.

The two groups have major differences, to be sure. The Levees.org motto, proudly displayed on thousands of yard signs throughout the city, is "Hold the Corps Accountable." ASCE, on the other hand, is inextricably linked to the Corps. Its 140,000 members include many engineers who have contracted with the Corps. When the Corps began investigating the levee failures — through its Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) — the agency asked ASCE to create an "external review panel" (ERP) to evaluate IPET's work. The Corps paid ASCE nearly $1 million for the ERP's assessment.

When the ERP released its report in June 2007, Levees.org reacted immediately. The group didn't criticize the report so much as the press release announcing it. Citing several glaring errors in the release, Levees.org insisted ASCE issue a retraction. ASCE removed the press release from its Web site, but did not apologize.

Tensions increased last November when a high school class at Isidore Newman School created and posted a short video on YouTube.com describing how the Corps paid ASCE for the ERP report and awarded the panel medals before the final report was issued. ASCE threatened a cease-and-desist lawsuit if the video wasn't removed. The offending video was taken down but later reposted after a public outcry against ASCE. Almost contemporaneously, ASCE announced that its Committee on Professional Conduct would investigate allegations of unethical conduct lodged by Ray Seed, an engineering professor and a lead investigator in a separate levee investigation by the National Science Foundation.

ASCE also announced that it was forming an independent task force headed up by former U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) to examine the society's policies and procedures for conducting engineering studies and national investigations. The task force was supposed to issue its report last April, but Boehlert now says it won't be ready until at least September.

The feud boiled over again this past Tuesday, when Levess.org called a press conference to decry delays in the Boehlert task force's report and the CPC's report. "The American Society of Civil Engineers has shown their true colors, and that is more of a drive to protect their own than to protect the American people," Levees.org founder Sandy Rosenthal said.

While we admire Rosenthal's work, we respectfully disagree with her accusation. While we share her disdain ASCE Executive Deputy Director Larry Roth, who made presentations to engineering students across the country that attempted to blame local levee boards instead of the Corps for the levee failures, most ASCE members are qualified, respected and honest civil engineers. One of them is local engineer Tom Jackson, a past president of ASCE who served on the ERP and currently sits on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. Although he has done consulting work for the Corps, Jackson also has criticized the agency. Most recently, he and his fellow flood authority members voted unanimously to support the proposed 8/29 Commission.

Jackson also has some ideas as to how to make peace between ASCE and Levees.org. He says an 8/29 Commission shouldn't focus on placing blame, but rather should examine critical "soft issues" such as how the Corps as a military organization works with Congress and the president in proposing flood-control projects in terms of cost and authorization. "As a past president of ASCE, I think they would support that kind of investigation at the drop of a hat," Jackson says. Rosenthal likewise has said the main purpose of the proposed commission is not to assign blame but rather to find ways to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu has introduced an 8/29 bill, and Rep. Charlie Melancon supports it. Unfortunately, the idea has stalled in Congress and likely won't get a hearing until next year. Still, now is the time to build momentum for the proposed commission — and winning the support of the 140,000-strong ASCE could provide just the push to make the commission a reality. ASCE's role in the levee failure investigation has been a public relations' nightmare. The association now has a chance to turn things around.

We urge ASCE and Levees.org to end the war of words and unite behind the proposed 8/29 commission. In the end, both groups want the same thing: safe and reliable flood protection for New Orleans. That's also a good place to start.

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