The Army Corpse of Engineers is guilty of negligent homicide. But you wouldn't know that from their recent self-exonerating
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commits to a major flood-protection project in greater New Orleans, actual physical improvements can take forever and a day to materialize. Because of legal problems, money shortfalls and bureaucratic delays, the agency took decades to build some of the levee projects that were promised after Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Even now some parts of that plan have yet to become reality.(Emphases mine.)
Because of the glacial pace of progress, the agency had plenty of time to adjust its designs to the latest facts.
Doing so ought to be standard practice. But that's not what the corps did. Agency officials didn't just authorize the construction of floodwalls in unstable soil along the 17th Street Canal. The corps also used old, inaccurate information to determine specifications for post-Betsy projects in this area, work by researchers at the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center suggests.
After the 1965 storm, Congress instructed the corps to protect greater New Orleans from "the most severe meteorological conditions that are considered reasonably characteristic of the region." To design those improvements, the corps relied on a 1959 study of storms that affected this area between 1900 and 1957. The Weather Bureau, the forerunner of today's National Weather Service, used the data to come up with parameters for a hypothetical severe hurricane. The corps used those paramaters to draw up plans for a variety of improvements. Officials there presumed that they needed to protect the area against a storm that would produce sustained 100 mph winds.
But construction of some parts of the project didn't begin until after 1982. And by that point it had been clear for a decade that the 1959 statistics were flawed.
According to the LSU researchers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1972 updated its description of the hypothetical storm. Based on a better data set, the so-called "standard project hurricane" was now expected to produce sustained winds of up to 114 mph. A 1979 report was even grimmer; the standard hurricane it described had winds of up to 140 mph.
But even as design work on post-Betsy flood-control projects continued into the 1980s and 1990s, the corps did not require that the new structures be built to stand up to the stronger standard project hurricane. If such a requirement had existed, greater New Orleans would have a had a far stronger flood-protection system on Aug. 29 than it did.
Granted, the corps might still have bungled the job. During Katrina, some structures, including the 17th Street Canal floodwalls, failed under conditions they were designed to withstand.
But if the LSU researchers are right, the corps went ahead and built floodwalls and levees designed to standards that it knew to be inadequate and out-of-date.
Perhaps corps officials now can't speak to what their predecessors did or didn't do back then. But one corps engineer suggested recently that the agency can't do more than lawmakers authorize them to do. The suggestion is that, in sticking with the 1959 data, the corps was only abiding by the wishes of Congress.
This contention is ludicrous. The 1965 legislation didn't direct the corps to protect this region against the phantom hurricane described in 1959; instead, the corps was supposed to consider the "most severe meteorological conditions."
Unless Congress starts approving detailed technical specifications in addition to whatever laws it passes, the corps will always have some room for interpretation. And as scientists came to understand more about what those conditions might look like, the corps should have incorporated that new information into its work.
According to Louisiana state law:
§32. Negligent homicideToo bad punishment doesn't include sticking offenders heads on pikes.
A. Negligent homicide is the killing of a human being by criminal negligence.
B. The violation of a statute or ordinance shall be considered only as presumptive evidence of such negligence.
C. Whoever commits the crime of negligent homicide shall be imprisoned with or without hard labor for not more than five years, fined not more than five thousand dollars, or both. However, if the victim was killed as a result of receiving a battery and was under the age of ten years, the offender shall be imprisoned at hard labor, without benefit of probation or suspension of sentence, for not less than two nor more than five years.
When will prosecution commence? Come on, you city attorneys, you state attorney general. Those responsible for not incorporating the most recent available meteorological data into levee designs belong in jail. The blood of 1,080 people is on their hands.
DISCLAIMER: "Those responsible" means, literally, "those responsible," i.e. the decision-makers, whoever they are.
BONUS: For more information or to find out what you can do, visit levees.org