N.O. Levees Swamped With Criticism

Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina flow over a levee along the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal, New Orleans. Aug. 30, 2005
AP Photo
New Orleans' levee system was routinely underfunded and therefore inadequate to protect against hurricanes, according to an independent report released Monday.

The report also called for an overhaul of the agencies that oversee flood protection. It took aim at Congress for its piecemeal funding over the past 50 years, and at state and local levee authorities for failing to properly oversee maintenance of the levees.

"You tend to get what you pay for," Dave Rogers, a member of the team of academics who extensively studied the system, said during a news conference on Monday.

The study was performed by the Independent Levee Investigation Team, led by the University of California, Berkeley. The group has been highly critical of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was in charge of designing and building the complicated system.

The study released Monday said floods overwhelmed levees and flood walls, both on the fringes and inside the city. Breaches were caused by weak soil in the levees, poor engineering and breakdowns in sections where different types of flood protection meet. CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts reports that in several places along the 350-mile levee system, the Corps used cheap material — sand instead of clay. According to investigators, the foundation for the levee walls were in some places just 13 feet deep — they should have been 60.

Pitts reports the culture at the Corps of Engineers changed in the past 40 years. Budget cuts and infighting between local politicians led to deadly inefficiency.

"We took the engineering out of the Corps of Engineers, and that's in an attempt to become better, faster, cheaper project managers," said Bob Bea, a former engineer with the Corps who worked on the investigation team.

As CBS News' Steve Futtermann reports, the findings dispute most of the corps' preliminary findings about what caused the levee breaches, saying the investigators had made critical errors in their analysis, as the Los Angeles Times notes.

The Corps of Engineers has been working to repair and upgrade the levee system before the June 1 start of the hurricane season, which is predicted to be hectic and above-normal, possibly producing between four and six major hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. However, officials said part of the work will not be finished by then.

Raymond Seed, a member of the study team, said Monday that engineers must pay attention to other spots in the system that may fail if another hurricane hits New Orleans.

"The next weakest link is the one you have to be worried about," Seed said.

While the corps is trying to upgrade the levee system, it is installing huge flood gates at key points to prevent the type of Katrina-like storm surge that entered canals and overtopped and breached levees, leading to the flooding of 80 percent of New Orleans and of surrounding areas.

A wide range of design and construction defects in levees around New Orleans raise serious concerns about whether the system can withstand the pounding of another hurricane the size of Katrina, even after $3.1 billion in repairs are completed, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The newspaper reports that these findings — laid out in a 600-page report — undermine assurances by both the Bush administration and the Corps of Engineers that the federal levee repair program will provide a higher level of protection to New Orleans.