WASHINGTON—Contractors who appear to have cut corners in building New Orleans' levees may have contributed to their failures after Hurricane Katrina, the engineer who directed an inquiry into the flooding concluded Wednesday.
Raymond Seed, a University of California-Berkeley engineer and the head of a national investigating team, told a Senate committee that he would ask federal authorities next week to issue subpoenas into what he called the "malfeasance" of the construction firms that worked on the levees in the last 15 years.
Seed, his team and another one from Louisiana said the force of Katrina wasn't the principal cause of the levee breaches.
Instead, manmade flaws—including inadequate engineering that used porous soil below and around levee walls, and poorly designed connections between different types of flood barriers—were largely responsible for the worst levee failures.
"Most of the flooding of New Orleans was due to man's follies," Ivor van Heerden, who headed the Louisiana assessment, told the Senate homeland security committee. "Society owes those who lost their lives, and the approximately 100,000 families who lost all, an apology."
Much of the flooding was easily and cheaply preventable, investigating engineers said.
Compounding the problems for New Orleans, the engineers added, was that efforts to rebuild the levees after the hurricane were also flawed. The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees levee work, has since altered its work after being notified of the failings three weeks ago.
During Wednesday's hearing, Seed cited two potential corner-cutting problems: levee walls built shorter and weaker to save money, and inferior but cheaper fill used around floodwalls.
There also are questions about the degree of oversight and inspections by the Army Corps, which approved the levee designs. The levees, which were built after 1965, were modified in the last 15 years. The work was mostly paid for by the federal government.
The Army Corps promised to look into the allegations but said the independent investigators were being hasty in their conclusions and that more analysis was needed. An Army Corps engineer told senators that a separate Corps analysis would be ready by July 1, 2006. Hurricane season starts June 1.
A vice president for one company that did some of the levee construction work said it was done properly.
Still, Seed said he hopes to remove up to six buried sheet walls from damaged levees to see if they were built shorter, as described in tips from guilt-ridden contractors, engineers and widows of levee workers.
"We're hearing from people who were involved and now feel very badly and want to make it right," Seed said after the hearing. "What we have now is stories of malfeasance and some field evidence that would correlate with these stories."
The biggest potential corner-cutting problems seem to be in the three canal failures, Seed said. Elsewhere, the faulty work may have had no effect on the levees' strength, he said.
Seed cited as an example the 17th Street Canal failures, which devastated parts of downtown New Orleans. The Army Corps' design documents were contradictory, saying the length of one metal wall should be either 14 feet, 16 feet, 17 feet or 27 feet. All those lengths were inadequate for the job, Seed said.
The engineering panel learned that the walls built were 20 feet long—still less than what was needed, Seed said.
Dale Biggers, an executive at Boh Brothers Construction, the New Orleans contractor that installed the sheet walls on the 17th Street Canal, said he recalls that the sheeting was 23 feet long.
"You are building that out in the open with inspectors for the agency watching. You have two sets of people watching, people with the agency that's hired you, the Corps of Engineers, and usually testing laboratories are another set of eyes. On a public job like that you would have a lot of testing going on," Biggers said.
Another problem was that inferior material was substituted for crucial soil below and around levees, Seed said. Instead of dry compactable soil that could help support the walls during a storm, contractors may have put in swampy, cheaper dirt that allowed water to seep through, he said.
Water seeping around and under levee walls was one of the biggest causes of levee failures, the engineering teams said.
Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley civil engineering professor and member of one of the teams, said he'd received anonymous calls from two women who were married to New Orleans contractors. One of them spent an hour and a half describing malfeasance in levee construction, he said, "implying money not going exactly where it should, materials not going exactly where they should or how they should, and frequently those responsible for checking, not checking."
But Army Corps chief spokeswoman Carol Sanders said the Corps "had not heard that charge before today. We're certainly interested in hearing more about it."
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said the government needs to look into the "corruption" that may have weakened levees, noting that Louisiana has a storied history of shady dealings.
A 128-page engineering report also presented to the Senate panel Wednesday disputed much of the Army Corps' post-Katrina comments that the levee system was built to withstand only storms up to Category 3 and not one as strong as Katrina.
But van Heerden, who also works with the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, said Katrina's winds and storm surge in parts of downtown New Orleans, where crucial breaches occurred, was much weaker.
The investigative team also found that floodwalls weren't connected properly.
Had the Army Corps gone a little further than the requirements, "a considerable fraction of the flooding and some of the loss of life would have been prevented," Seed said.
"The performance of many of the levees and floodwalls could have been significantly improved, and some of the failures likely prevented, with relatively inexpensive modifications of the levee and floodwall system details," the report concluded. Those included such measures as adding concrete around the floodwall bases and even simple paving.
Army Corps spokeswoman Sanders said it was too early to reach some of the engineering teams' conclusions.
"We've got 10 teams out there, figuring out what consequences were," Sanders said. "We'll shortly be looking at the design, as well as how it (the levee system) was actually built, doing borings and getting a lot of additional information."
(Carey is a reporter with The San Jose Mercury News.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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