Three questions for debate

March 2006 » Feature Articles
Fixing the catastrophic devastation produced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and strengthening the Gulf Coast for future storms will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen. 
Richard G. Weingardt, P.E.

Gulf Coast reconstruction efforts raise questions about who will pay, who will lead, and whether it is worth the cost

Fixing the catastrophic devastation produced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and strengthening the Gulf Coast for future storms will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen. Billions of dollars for repairs and rebuilding will be spent, but that won’t guarantee that all parts of the coast, including New Orleans, will be protected fully against Category 5 (or higher) hurricanes, which are certain to strike again. This begs the following three questions: 1) Is total rebuilding a wise investment? 2) Should people from other parts of the country pay for infrastructure improvements for New Orleans? 3) Should more engineers help lead the reconstruction efforts? When citizens of cities such as New Orleans choose to live in places susceptible to hurricanes—or below sea level, on earthquake fault lines, in mudslide areas, in flood plains along unruly rivers, or in the path of mountain avalanches—is it the responsibility of all Americans to pay when natural disasters predictably occur? Or, should the brunt of the cost be borne by the citizens—and their insurance companies—who have chosen to live in such dangerous places? The use of federal government funds for emergency reconstruction efforts and aid to victims has long been a U.S. tradition.

But when staggering sums are used to build major, across-the-board improvements, some incisive national discourse is warranted. And civil engineers—those skilled in infrastructure design and maintenance—should be included in that debate.

To leaders such as Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, these improvements require developing long-range solutions for building a better, safer New Orleans while retaining its historic fabric. For a city that was substantially put under water when Katrina ripped its levees, that’s a tall and expensive order. High on her wish list is having Louisiana adopt a statewide building code and a unified, coordinated, and focused plan for hurricane protection and coastal restoration. Said Blanco, "The single most important issue in Louisiana today is coastal protection: raising the levees to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and restoring our coastal wetlands." Doing this will fall on the shoulders of the federal government, in particular the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), which traditionally has been responsible for levees, as well as coastal harbors and waters-edge facilities. Breaching of New Orleans levees has put the Corps’ work in the spotlight internationally. Its solutions for low land reclamation projects and control dams are being compared with those in the Netherlands and other countries.

As solutions to Louisiana’s antiquated levee system are sought, three major groups—the Corps, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)—are pursuing studies into the cause of each levee failure.

According to Henry Hatch, a former head of the Corps, "New Orleans was protected by levees capable of resisting a Category 3 level storm. Katrina exceeded that. Over the years, the Corps put forth numerous plans for levee improvements—including two large barriers in Lake Pontchartrain and extensive modifications to levee structures themselves." But politics or funding shortages always superseded engineering recommendations. Plus, there has been a constant tug of war between Corps supporters and the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and private environmental groups, often resulting in costly, time-consuming, and deal-killing lawsuits.

To handle the crisis brought about by the 2005 hurricane devastation, the Corps established the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET), comprised of leading engineers and scientists from government, academia, and private industry. Their task is to determine exactly what happened with the New Orleans hurricane and flood-control system during Katrina. Its ultimate purpose is to provide guidance for the Corps’ Task Force Guardian (TFG), which is managing the current effort to repair damaged levees and floodwalls.

As part of its deliberations, IPET reviewed the "Preliminary Report on the Performance of the New Orleans Levee Systems in Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005," prepared jointly by ASCE and an NSF-sponsored and funded team. In producing its Dec. 5, 2005, interim report, "Summary of Field Observations Relevant to Flood Protection in New Orleans," IPET agreed with the majority of the ASCE/NSF findings. IPET’s final report, to be completed June 1, 2006, will be validated by an ASCE external review panel.

Then, a multidisciplinary independent panel of experts sponsored by the National Academies will review and synthesize the IPET and ASCE efforts. The panel will report its recommendations directly to the Bush Administration and Congress. It will result in layers of checks and balances to verify correctness.

In addition to reports and studies, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have triggered massive federal spending for reconstruction and improvements. To safeguard against "pork-barreling" and corruption, ASCE called for creation of an independent, federally funded reconstruction advisory panel.

The panel, comprised of professionals from engineering, architecture, planning, and other design and construction-related fields, would provide an objective review of all design and construction issues. It would serve as the primary advisor to local officials and federal agencies working on reconstruction plans. Although it would come up with strategies to minimize the impact of future storms and other hazards, the panel would have no authority to mandate solutions. Its members would work gratis, but the government would administer the program.

In addition, ASCE recommended that Congress establish a more stringent national flood control policy, one that emphasizes the need to protect against 500-year floods and Category 5 hurricanes.

It also recommended that Congress enact a national levee inspection and safety program similar to the National Dam Safety Program.

Damage assessment Although most of the media focus and investigations to date have concentrated on New Orleans and its levee failures, the city never was hit directly by either Katrina or Rita. In fact, neither hurricane struck land with anywhere near the dreaded Category 5 forces forecasted. According to failure and damage control consultant Jim Wiethorn (with Texas-based Haag Engineering, a disaster analysis firm that has investigated hurricane destruction since 1923), "The Mississippi coast, in particular towns like Biloxi and Waveland, which took a direct hit from Katrina, experienced the worst devastation. The high water surge there measured 31 feet." Ed Turner, a former city engineer for Idaho Falls, Idaho, who arrived in Mississippi as part of a disaster rescue and support team after Katrina hit land, said, "There was total destruction for 100 miles along the coast and several miles inland; total disarray all over—trees down, bridges washed away, roads in bad shape, power out, no potable water, and non-existent sewage services. Debris was scattered everywhere—tin, paper, roofing, and garbage all over the countryside—even trash caught up in the many trees in the area. In lots of places, just foundations were left. It was difficult at first to differentiate between wind- and water-caused devastation." Wiethorn, also an early arriver at the disaster sites, reported that the structural and infrastructure failures caused by Katrina and Rita were not materially different from those of previous Gulf Coast hurricanes. Although damage is more widespread (and much more costly) than previous storms, no surprises and no new failure modes were observed, except for widespread breaches in the New Orleans levees. Said Wiethorn, "Overall, there was limited damage from wind itself, including in New Orleans. Most destruction came from water surges. And that’s understandable.

A wave at 5 mph is the equivalent of a 140-mph wind; and a 10-mph wave [has the force of] a 300-mph wind. The main hurricane-caused structural damage to buildings occurred below storm surge [high water] line. Generally, if the storm surge didn’t collapse a building, there was a minimum of roof or upper building damage in areas where waves didn’t reach that high." Storm surge devastation was caused not just by the water’s tremendous horizontal might, but also by erosion, scouring, and undermining of foundations. Damage also resulted from uplift forces that floated structures off their supports, discarding or moving them to new locations. "Engineered structures, as has traditionally been the case, faired much better than non-engineered buildings or residences," said Wiethorn.

Along those lines, civil engineering professors around the country are calling for more specialized education. Scott Douglas, director of the University of South Alabama’s Coastal Transportation Engineering Research and Education Center, said, "We need a new cadre of civil engineers trained in the unique design environment along the coast. America’s population continues to move to the coast; people love it there. But the civil engineering community hasn’t promoted enough training for coastal engineers. As it is, there is no formal training program in coastal engineering in the states hit hardest by Katrina.

I think if we had had those programs in place, we might have seen a little less damage, maybe even a lot less damage." Civil engineering professor and founding director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Information Center Marc Levitan stresses the need for more comprehensive coastal building codes. He believes that educators have a responsibility to make the engineering community more knowledgeable about designing and building for disasters.

Architectural engineering professor David Fowler at the University of Texas at Austin said, "It simply isn’t economically feasible to design all structures along the coast for Category 5 or higher winds and storm surges. With that said, we must do a better job of building correctly to meet existing codes. Far too often, in the aftermath of hurricane destruction, it is found that a large number of buildings, particularly houses, were not built in accordance with existing codes. Building officials and construction companies, and where applicable, architects and engineers, must be held accountable for these deficiencies.

Insurance companies should be more demanding in requiring evidence of proper design and construction before writing policies. Improved training and education of builders and building officials are needed. As educators, we need to make our students more aware of the destructive effects of wind and water experienced during hurricanes." "Do good engineering and the public’s safety will be protected" seems to be the message, but at what cost? Who will pay for the heavy costs? And who, ultimately, will control the purse strings, choosing one project over another? Codes and building standards can be changed and engineers can be required to be certified for hurricane design and coastal peculiarities, but if engineering solutions have a perceived environmental impact, courts and environmentalists can and will shoot them down.

Katrina and Rita have called attention to the growing need to engage engineers as technical experts in rebuilding severely damaged or destroyed buildings, water and sewer systems, transportation facilities, and other infrastructure. But in the bigger arena of public decision-making, participation by civil engineers continues to be sadly lacking.

In spite of the fact that engineering is the second largest profession in the nation, no civil engineers who are registered professional engineers sit in the U.S. Congress. None are governors. Few hold any of the 6,000 or so state legislative seats around the country.

For years, the United Nations has been predicting that America’s population will double during the next century. And with that growth will come the need to double our infrastructure and built environment—something civil engineers excel at and for which they should be stewards.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, the world will become increasingly more sophisticated and dependent on technology.

People skilled at engineering will increase in demand, not only to make things run, but also to run things as public leaders. Likewise, as our nation’s infrastructure becomes older and more interdependent and complex, and its population grows and becomes denser, the cost for disasters such as Katrina and Rita will continue to skyrocket. As catastrophic as the 2005 hurricane season was for Americans, it could be the impetus for the civil engineering community to take another look at itself and the role its members play as bigpicture leaders in society.

Richard G. Weingardt, P.E., is CEO and chairman of Richard Weingardt Consultants, Inc., a Denver-based structural engineering firm. He can be contacted at rweingardt@aol.com.


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