Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina Relief: The Engineering Challenge

Notes from Defense Department Special Briefing on Efforts to Mitigate Infrastructure Damage from Hurricane Katrina:

Lieutenant General Carl Strock, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, gave a brief rundown of what the corps has been doing and what some of the plans are to mitigate the infrastructure damage from Hurricane Katrina.

The Corps of Engineers is involved in 3 ways:

1. Support of FEMA under the National Response Plan: provide one of the emergency support functions called public works -- do debris removal, provide ice, water, emergency power, temporary shelter, fix roofs; provide command and control facilities and basically whatever else is needed in the area of public works.

2. As an agency of the federal government responsibile for civil works: restore deep draft navigation and fight flooding outside of the FEMA authorities.

3. Support of Joint Task Force Katrina: ensure the right kind of Army engineers flow forward to help LTG Honoré (Commander, JTF-Katrina). Ensure the Army Corps of Engineers, which is principally civilians, about 34,000 civilians, is made available to LTG Honoré in his military support to the effort.

Situation in New Orleans: 2 breaches in the levees on the Lake Pontchartrain side. Water levels in the city have stabilized. Not expected to rise. Some fluctuation based on the tidal influence from Lake Pontchartrain, but essentially the flooding has stabilized and the task at hand now is to drain the city and create the conditions where recovery can begin to take place.

Threefold approach:

1. Land. Work with the city, FEMA and other agencies to move construction equipment to the site by building causeways from dry land out to the site of the breach.

2. Water. Access to the area by water is difficult. Bridges across canals where the breaches are located cannot be lifted. No power. No direct water access to the breach point.

- Trying to seal off the mouth of the canal where it empties into the lake -- ongoing, very good progress.

- Once canals are closed, actual work on the levees will begin.

- Not critical right now, but storms are forming up in the Atlantic. Want to make sure levees are not open with another storm front approaching.

3. Aerial. Very limited aviation assets. Rotary wing is what is needed to put material into the breaches -- the very asset needed to do search-and-rescue and save victims.

- Dropping 300-pound sandbags in. Have the ability to do 2000-pound bags and larger. Sufficient quantity on hand.

Next task is to de-water the city. Will breach levees on the Lake Pontchartrain side and let gravity take control to move the water out to sea -- most effective and efficient way.

How long will it take? Dependent on the size of the breaches the engineers make in the levee. A small breach takes longer to drain. The larger the breach the more vulnerable you are to other events. Must be very careful about how the dewatering operation is done.

As that begins, engineers will go back in and work on the pumping stations. When the pumping kicks in, that will complete the process. Then the levees will be closed and that should create the conditions for recovery to begin.

Navigation. Closed from Mobile to west of New Orleans.

- Gulf Intercoastal Waterway is open except for about a 10-mile stretch. Anticipate that it will be completely open soon.

- The channel from Baton Rouge to the sea buoy outside of New Orleans has been surveyed and found free of obstructions. Can move vessels in and out of New Orleans.

- Challenge is the navigation aides. Working with the NOAA Navigation Response Teams and the U.S. Coast Guard to reestablish aides to navigation -- buoys that can be seen by the navigators and pilots as they move back through.

- Will not be able to do night operations for some time to come.

- River pilots have to actually run the river themselves and assure themselves that they understand the situation before they'll bring vessels in and out of the port.

- Working in a similar fashion at all the ports from New Orleans to Mobile, to survey the ports and then get them open as quickly as possible.

Addresses a couple of points that have been in the press lately.

- Engineers have done everything they can to protect New Orleans and to respond to a disaster like this.

- A higher rate of funding for flood protection projects would not have stopped the disaster.

3 main projects are being worked in the New Orleans area. Since 2002, Army Corps of Engineers have contributed more than $300 million to these projects:

1. work on the shores of Lake Ponchatrain
2. Southeast Louisiana or SELA project, which is focused on work inside the levees and protecting the system from flooding and restoring drainage
3. the west bank projects on the other side of the river

(Click on photo to enlarge)

New Orleans is protected by a series of 13 levees, over 300 miles of levee.

Red = significant flooding, levee breaks
Green = minor flooding.

Multiple parishes involved here; not just Orleans and Jefferson Parish.

Could this have been avoided? Levees were designed to protect from a Category 3 hurricane. Intensity of Katrina exceeded the design capacity of the levee.

Why Category 3 and not 4 and 5?

Design was based on engineering assessment/risk assessment. Project was designed about 30 years ago. It was based on a 200 or 300-year level of protection -- i.e. Category 3 might be exceeded every 200 or 300 years. That is a .5 percent likelihood. So, a 99.5 percent assurance that design would be OK. Unfortunately, the .5 percent happened.

Bottom line: Army Corps of Engineers and local officials knew the capacity of the levee system, and that is exactly why the mayor and the governor ordered the evacuation of New Orleans, because they knew that if a Category 4 or 5 hurricane were to strike New Orleans, that this levee system could not be relied upon. Had they not done that, the losses could have been even more significant.

Q&A with the "Blame President Bush/Blame America" Mainstream Media. It's rather long. You can read it at the link. I really liked LTG Strock's answer to this question:

Q: Were you surprised when it happened. I mean --

LTG STROCK: Was I surprised when it happened?

Q: Yeah.

LTG STROCK: You know, I really don't express surprise in my business. We look ahead at what we think is coming. We try to prepare for it, and then we respond to it. We don't sit around and say, "Gee whiz"; we get to work, roll up our sleeves and go to work.


susanna in alabama said...

I saw Strock yesterday on C-Span's Washington Weekly. I recognized him immediately from seeing him on your blog, so I watched the segment. He's very impressive. One suspects that had he been in charge of the evacuation, things would have ended differently. As it is, I'd say New Orleans is in the best possible hands right now, at least the parts with him in charge.

MerryMadMonk said...

And he has a very impressive background:

Strock's mil bio

Susanna, had you been in charge of the evacuation, things would have been better!

Ray and Kathy are way, way out of their league. It is painful to watch them on television.