Cutting Corners Kills

Operation “blame NOLA on environmentalists” is starting to bear some fruit. That is, if you believe the right-wing blogosphere, who’s all too eager to hype this bit from a recent NY Times article on the levy breaks :

A surge from Lake Pontchartrain was the catastrophic situation that the corps had been guarding against since Hurricane Betsy 40 years ago. Initially, the corps wanted to build a giant barrier to keep water from the Gulf of Mexico from reaching Lake Pontchartrain and flooding the canals.

That project was delayed by lawsuits from environmental groups that contended the corps had failed to study ecological effects. By the late 1970’s, the corps abandoned that approach and began raising levees along the lake and the Mississippi and adding flood walls on the canals.

Is the Times burying the lede here? Well, only if you ignore this…

As a result of federal budget constraints, the walls were never tested for their ability to withstand the cascades of lake water that rushed up to, or over, their tops as storm waves pulsed through the canals on Aug. 29, corps and local officials say.

Hurricane Katrina was the first serious test of the flood walls, said Stevan Spencer, chief engineer for the Orleans Levee District, and it “just overwhelmed the system.”


Other questions surround the walls’ design, known as an “I-wall” for its slim cross section that fits easily into densely developed areas.

The corps manual for flood control construction suggests a different design for walls higher than seven feet – walls shaped like an inverted T, with the horizontal section buried in the dirt for extra stability.

But that option was never considered, corps engineers said, because “T walls” were more expensive, required a broad base of dense soil for support and were not necessarily stronger.

…and this from the same article.

The corps and local levee authorities also never tested whether the chosen I-wall design could survive if water flowed over the top and cascaded onto dirt embankments below.

Corps officials said they were proscribed from considering stronger wall designs for the canals both by the tight quarters and by federal law, which requires that they seek and study only the level of flood control authorized by Congress.

“Our hands are tied as to looking at higher-level events,” Mr. Naomi said.

All of which point to the same conclusion : The feds were unwilling to shell out enough money. I think we can all agree that testing the strength of the existing levees, making sure the levees are build to spec, and researching alternative solutions are all essential parts of a proper construction effort, but these steps are all expensive. When the flow of cash dries up the way it has since Bush took office, people start cutting corners, skipping crucial steps, and having to decide whether to do a half-assed job on the entire project or a thorough job on a project whose goals have been seriously scaled back. We won’t know the truth behind those questions until this tragedy is fully investigated, but we already know the result of those decisions :

This man isn’t dead because of thirty-year-old lawsuits. He’s dead because the federal government had “more important” things to be spending money on, like cutting taxes for wealthy people, no-bid contracts to political donors, and corporate giveaways. Only a fool would pretend otherwise.