Tuesday, June 12, 2007

New Orleans levee report completed

TerraDaily: A report that recommends steps to reduce hurricane damage in New Orleans was released by an expert engineering panel of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The 84-page report, "The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System: What Went Wrong and Why," targets the public and policymakers, and complements and synthesizes the thousands of pages released so far by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during their post-Katrina investigation.

Dr. Robert Gilbert, the risk expert on the ASCE panel and a civil engineering professor at The University of Texas at Austin, noted that their risk analysis confirms the vulnerable nature of the city's hurricane protection system. In the report, the panel estimated that despite the levees and floodwalls, New Orleans residents' pre-Katrina risk was at a 1,000-fold higher rate than considered minimally acceptable for a major U.S. dam.

"A thousand people died in New Orleans, and the system failed once in 40 years," said the international risk assessment expert. "That's way off the chart of acceptable risk if you compare the system to major U.S. dams, which have governmental oversight and must meet federal safety guidelines."

…As part of assessing the risk and making recommendations for future improvements, the panel considered factors that included:

+ how inconsistencies in the features of the levees and floodwalls - including their varying heights and construction from erodible materials - resulted from their piecemeal development and disjointed oversight, and how this fed into the failure at 50 locations along the system during Hurricane Katrina;

+ how the hurricane protection system was under-designed to handle a major storm surge produced by hurricane winds that would reach New Orleans. No one had ever estimated the height of the surge likely to reach different points of the levee system using the standard benchmark - a major hurricane that would hit an average of every 100 years.

Despite the importance of engineering improvements, Gilbert cautioned that fortification steps alone aren't enough.

"It isn't just about improving the reliability of the levees and making them taller," he said. "Spending federal money towards developing a way to evacuate people effectively is crucial, and very little emphasis has been put on this or on determining how to rebuild the city in a way that will keep people and property safe."

Relying only on levees isn't the answer, Gilbert said, because upgrading them is expensive, and it's difficult to anticipate the magnitude of future storms, which can impact a small portion of a levee system and have catastrophic consequences. He also noted that higher levees can create greater danger because of the higher wall of water that is released if they fail…

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