Thursday, September 15

Do Governor Blanco's legal advisors have feathers for brains?

On Tuesday, President George W. Bush reversed course by announcing to the nation that to "the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

On Wednesday, Governor Kathleen Blanco also reversed course: "At the state level, we must take a careful look at what went wrong and make sure it never happens again. The buck stops here, and as your governor, I take full responsibility,'' Blanco told lawmakers in a special meeting of the Louisiana Legislature.

Here Pundita must also reverse course. Privately I have been clinging to the straw that Kathleen Blanco is not in full possession of her faculties. Yet on the assumption that the governor of a US state has a team of legal advisors, common sense precludes me from hoping the entire team is barking mad.

So I find myself inexorably maneuvered into wondering whether the most simple explanation isn't the likeliest: perhaps Governor Blanco and her advisors assume that Americans outside Louisiana's seat of government have the puzzle-solving capacity of a two-year old.

How else to explain why legal advisors would allow Blanco to suddenly take responsibility for what is negligence verging on a capital crime? In these days of the Internet, how long did they think it would take, before the central issue bubbled to the surface?

In the case of the New Orleans levees, which were only built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, there are still too many variables to categorically assert that winds and flooding from a Category 4 hurricane would automatically breach or even 'top' them. Whereas in the case of the New Orleans floodwalls, it is beyond argument that they were unable to withstand a Category 4.

On the distinction turns the level of negligence indicated by Governor Blanco's failure to fully evacuate the lowest-lying sections of New Orleans ahead of Katrina's strike. That is the central issue.

There have been statements by Blanco and other Louisiana officials to the effect that no one could have predicted the catastrophic flooding that overtook New Orleans. However, the statements cannot apply to the floodwalls.

So before continuing let's be clear on the difference between a levee and a floodwall and exactly what failed in the hurricane:
Levees are broad, earthen structures, while floodwalls are concrete and steel walls, built atop a levee or in place of a levee. Floodwalls are often used in urban areas because they require less land than levees. The floodwalls in New Orleans generally are 6 to 10 feet tall and a foot wide at the top and two feet wide at the base, and they stand on earthen foundations. (1)
Yesterday I reported that Jim Huey, President Orleans Levee Board, told NBC's Investigative Unit: "As far as the overall flood protection system, it's intact, it's there today, it worked. In 239 miles of levees, 152 floodgates, and canals throughout this entire city, there was only two areas [of failure]."

Mr Huey neglected to mention the floodwalls. Yet as early as August 31, WWL-TV (CBS affiliate, New Orleans) reported that the floodwalls had failed. Here, part of the transcript:
Answers from Army Corps of Engineers on unwatering New Orleans
11:28 PM CDT on Tuesday, August 30, 2005
[...] Q.2. Why did the levees fail?

A.2. What failed were actually floodwalls, not levees. This was caused by overtopping which caused scouring, or an eating away of the earthen support, which then basically undermined the wall.

These walls and levees were designed to withstand a fast moving category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a strong 4 at landfall, and conditions exceeded the design.

Q.3. Why only Category 3 protection?

A.3. That is what we were authorized to do.
On September 4, 60 Minutes picked up on the critical distinction between the floodwalls and levees protecting New Orleans. From the transcript (published September 5 on CBS website):
Scott Pelley: "We learned something that surprised us here. Despite what you’ve been hearing, not one of New Orleans’ levees failed. All of the massive earthen levees survived. The failure was in flood walls like this one on the 17th Street canal. The flood walls are miles long, but only two feet thick."

Al Naomi is the man who manages them for the Army Corps of Engineers. He was probably the first to understand what was about to happen to New Orleans.

"Flood walls are unforgiving. They're either there or they're not," Naomi says.

The walls were designed in 1965 to withstand a Category 3 storm. Category 4 Katrina pushed her surge over the top.

"It just was overtopped and the water started pouring over the support for the flood wall, failed and it just pushed out and toppled over and that was it," Naomi explains.

Naomi was at a loss when asked how this engineering disaster could have been prevented.

"You see there was not sufficient money or time to do anything about this," Naomi says. "If someone had said, 'O.K. here is a billion dollars, stop this failure from happening for a Category 4,' it couldn't have been done in time. I’d of had to start 20 years ago to where I feel today I would've been safe from a Category 4 storm like Katrina.

"Sure it should have been done 20 years ago but what can we do about that? You have to recognize before we had Category 3 protection we didn't have anything."
The question is whether a billion dollars and 20 years would be required to upgrade the floodwalls in just the lowest-lying and thus, most at-risk residential section of New Orleans and environs. This would include the Lower Ninth Ward, where many of the city's poorest lived. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Trapped between three cascades of [flood] water were the neighborhoods of the Lower Ninth Ward, where nearly 14,000 African-Americans lived, a third of whom owned no vehicle and a third of whom had physical disabilities, according to U.S. Census data.(2)
The same WSJ article asks:
Why were the levees lining the Industrial Canal and parts of Lake Pontchartrain to the east lower than in other parts of the city? [...]

How high the wave reached hasn't been determined, but the surge poured over 15-foot high levees along the Industrial Canal, which were several feet lower than others in the central areas of the city. [...]
But let's set aside for now the technical question of how much it would have cost, and how long it would have taken, to reinforce only the most vulnerable areas of the NOLA flood protection system.

With regard to the matter at hand, the key sentence in the 60 Minutes interview is "Flood walls are unforgiving." Unlike the levees on which they perch, their construction and material provide virtually no latitude for inexact assumptions.

What we know for certain at this point, and what was clearly known to anyone managing the flood protection system or reading reports on such, is that it wouldn't have taken a Category 4 hurricane to overwhelm the flood control system protecting the lowest-lying area of New Orleans.

A slow-moving Category 3 or even lower, of the kind represented by Ophelia, would greatly weaken the levees and likely overwhelm the floodwall defenses, which are several feet lower than ones in other parts of the city.

Then it would depend on the pumping system, which reportedly was not designed to pump out floodwater; it was designed to pump rain water. And in the event of a widescale electrical outage, the pumping station would likely fail and could take days if not weeks to be fully functional in the event of catastrophic flooding.

Against all this is the inarguable fact: the Governor of the State of Louisiana did not ensure that the lowest-lying regions of New Orleans and neighboring districts were fully evacuated ahead of Katrina's landfall.

So I cannot find reason, other than a belated attack of conscience, for Kathleen Blanco to publicly assert this late in the day that she takes full responsibility.

1) CRS report.

2) Anatomy of a Flood: 3 Deadly Waves
September 7, 2005; Page A1, Wall Street Journal.

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