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Someone to Watch Over Them

Congress now requires "peer review' of Corps of Engineers decisions, but it does not require the Corps to heed the reviews " or the reviewers.

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No one was looking over their shoulders. Experts have repeatedly pointed out that one of the underlying causes of the 2005 levee failures was that there were no agencies reviewing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' work or decision-making process.

For instance, when designing parts of the levee system in the 1980s, the Corps chose to base its design-protection model on a 1959 report on hurricane strengths — instead of a later report in 1979 that examined stronger hurricanes, including Hurricane Betsy. Ironically, it was Betsy that prompted the federal government to undertake construction of the local hurricane protection system.

There's no telling how much that single mistake cost, but a qualified reviewer could have caught the error without great difficulty.

Congress recognized the need for external review last year and included peer review as a requirement in the $23 billion Water Resources Development Act, which authorized more than $1 billion for Louisiana coastal restoration projects. While the new law mandates that peer reviews occur, however, it doesn't necessarily mean that the Corps will listen to the reviewers.

'They (the Corps) do have to do peer review under the law," says Garrett Graves, director of the Governor's Office of Coastal Affairs. "But there's nothing under the current plan that would prohibit them from doing a peer review, having the peer review come back and find major flaws, and the Corps simply ignoring [the review's findings]. There's no binding attribution to the peer review."

Graves isn't comfortable with that limitation. Before signing a project partnership agreement with the Corps on March 31 to build the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Reduction Project, Graves waved a huge red flag at Louisiana's congressional delegation. Graves wrote in a memo that although he had "great reservations and the feeling of a gun to our head, we plan to sign the contract today." The IHNC project is the largest design-build project in the history of the Corps. It will cost between $500 million and $1 billion.

Tom Jackson knows how Graves feels.

Jackson is an engineer and a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (the consolidated East Bank levee board). He says levee boards have no real input in design and construction of the hurricane protection system — and that ultimately the Corps will "build what they want."

'The Corps makes the decision," Jackson says. "It doesn't listen to us. I've spent a year and a half using all my professional skills to try to make the Corps do things right, and I've been unsuccessful. I am not going to take another term on this board."

Besides his experience with the levee board, Jackson was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) External Review Panel (ERP). The panel evaluated the work of the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET), which was tasked with analyzing what happened to the New Orleans hurricane- and flood-protection system during Hurricane Katrina.

The IPET report is a monstrous document. It has more than 7,000 pages — and it still does not have the final section on risk analysis — and it involved more than 150 professionals. Critics have called into question the report's reliability and objectivity, mostly because a majority of the IPET team leaders were also members of the Corps.

The ASCE's role in reviewing the IPET report likewise has been criticized. While ASCE is the nation's oldest engineering society with some 140,000 members worldwide, some of its own membership is accusing the society's administration of collusion with the Corps. The dissenting engineers contend that ASCE members depend too heavily on the Corps to be an impartial judge of the IPET report. Moreover, the Corps paid for the review, decided what information it would release to the panel, and determined the scope of the society's External Review Panel. For all those reasons, some engineers say the ERP report shouldn't be considered a complete peer review of the IPET's work.

The shortcomings of the ERP report are exacerbated, some engineers say, when the IPET investigation is held up as the final say on the levee failures and the ERP report as proof of its veracity.

For its part, ASCE has formed an independent task force, led by former U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., to examine the society's procedures and policies for conducting engineering studies and national investigations. At the same time, ASCE is performing an internal review of allegations of professional misconduct lodged against ASCE executives. The allegations were made by Ray Seed, a professor of engineering research from the University of California at Berkeley and a lead investigator in the National Science Foundation-sponsored levee investigation. The independent task force, led by Boehlert, is expected to make its findings public at the end of this month.

Meanwhile, Corps critics hope the Boehlert task force will address these and other questions:

Is ASCE too allied with the Corps to assess the levee failures objectively?

Who decided what subjects ASCE's External Review Panel could cover in its report?

Does the IPET report really expose all the problems that began long before the man-made catastrophe of Aug. 29, 2005?

It has been suggested that Boehlert's task force might conclude that ASCE should no longer probe national disasters. The society also looked into the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center. If Boehlert's task force reaches that conclusion, it gives rise to other questions: Who should review the work of investigators? And, of more local significance, will the Corps ever be made to listen?

There's really no disputing the allegations that ASCE members are connected to the Corps of Engineers. As the flood authority's Jackson puts it, that's what civil engineers do — "work on civil works primarily with the government." Jackson says he has done consulting work for the Corps in the past, but not while he was part of the External Review Panel. He doesn't see this as a conflict of interest; rather he believes it's a necessity for evaluating the Corps' assignments and performance.

'The fact of the matter is unless you worked with the Corps, you're going to have a hard time knowing the type of projects they're working on," Jackson says.

Jackson, a past president of ASCE, admits he has been frustrated with Levees.org, the grassroots group that was formed after the levee failures and whose motto is: "Hold the Corps Accountable." He disagrees with what he perceives as the group's position that if an engineer accepts assignments from the Corps, that engineer should not assess other aspects of the Corps' performance. He says that civil engineers — like doctors, lawyers and other professionals — have a code of ethics, which would govern and help avoid direct conflicts of interest.

'Professionals work for a lot of different people," Jackson explains. "And one of the requirements of being a professional is being able to understand and control conflicts of interest. It's in our rules and regulations, both in the state of Louisiana and ASCE."

Bob Bea, a professor of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, is very familiar with ASCE's code of ethics. He's been a member of the organization for 54 years. Bea, who also served on the Independent Levee Investigation Team, says that finding independence is "hell" when it comes to peer reviews and that ASCE no longer can be expected to review Corps' projects independently. Bea says the problem with ASCE is that the organization, through its administration, has become a lobbying group more concerned with maintaining an association with the Corps than with the technological issues of engineering.

As evidence of ASCE's too-cozy relationship with the Corps, Bea points to a series of presentations that Larry Roth, ASCE's executive deputy director and a member of the ASCE's External Review Panel, began giving to engineering students across the country in autumn 2006. The presentations, titled "The New Orleans Levees: The Worst Engineering Catastrophe in U.S. History — What Went Wrong and Why?" dealt with the problems associated with the levee failures and how to avoid them in the future. Levees.org has complained to ASCE and the media that the presentations contained a number of falsehoods, misrepresentations and omissions. H.J. Bosworth, a member of both Levees.org and ASCE, wrote to ASCE that the presentations were "designed to protect the Corps' reputation and shift blame on the locals." ASCE spokesperson Joan Buhrman disputes those charges, saying ASCE paid for the presentations and was fulfilling part of its mission of educating students and fellow engineers.

Levees.org cites several examples of Roth attempting to shift blame to the Orleans Levee Board while glossing over the Corps' responsibility for the levee failures. A video of one presentation at the University of Auburn in April 2007 (http://www.eng.auburn.edu/videos/levee-fail.html) shows Roth stating that the External Review Panel recommended that someone be put in charge of the hurricane protection system. The ERP did make such a recommendation, but Roth adds, "and Tom Jackson is the president of the East Side levee board. And so it's really exciting that we've got someone in charge, which is what the recommendation was" — as if local levee boards were the root cause of the levee failures, and all that was needed was a change in leadership there.

At the time, Jackson was the new president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, but even Jackson acknowledges that the position has no authority over the Corps of Engineers, which designed and built all the levees. "I think anybody who thinks a levee board, whether the new East Bank board, the West Bank board or any of them, has any say-so whatsoever about what the Corps does is fooling themselves."

In the same video, Roth glosses over the fact that the Corps failed to upgrade its design criteria in response to new calculations of hurricane strength after Hurricane Betsy.

In Roth's presentation, he also spent a fair amount of time disparaging local levee boards, suggesting they were at least partially responsible for the breaches by saying, "They didn't care about critical life safety." At one point in his speech, which elicited laughter from his audience, Roth pointed to a slide of a flooded vehicle and says, "See that little seal? Know what it says? It's "Orleans Levee Board.'"

Roth made no jokes about the Corps.

Although he was a member of ASCE's External Review Panel, Jackson says he was not aware of Roth's presentations. As for levee boards bearing responsibility for the breaches, Jackson is unequivocal in his reply: "Absolutely not. That's absurd."

Bea believes that ASCE's administration has maintained a cordial relationship with the Corps, lest the Corps turn to other organizations for assistance and leave ASCE in the cold. Bea adds that relationships with governmental organizations — and the money they control — can lead to loose interpretations of the truth. "You can bring people into situations where you cause them to do things they wouldn't independently do," Bea says.

As an example, Bea points to his own experience. In the late 1980s, Bea's engineering consulting business was asked by the U.S. Department of Interior to review the safety of an oil company's — Bea refuses to identify the company — proposed drilling platform to be built in California's Santa Barbara Channel. Bea studied the design proposal and initially concluded that it wasn't safe. When the oil company learned of Bea's negative assessment, company officials invited him to Houston for, in Bea's words, an "attitude improvement discussion." Following the discussion, Bea changed his report and gave the proposal a thumbs up.

'I wanted to maintain my place at the table, didn't I?" Bea says.

Then there's the question of awards.

On Feb. 12, 2007, the Corps held an awards ceremony for members of ASCE's External Review Panel. Each member of the ERP was given an Outstanding Civilian Service Medal. Although the honor could reasonably be justified in light of the amount of time ERP members spent studying the levee failures, the timing of the ceremony raised questions. It came more than three months before the ERP released its final report.

ASCE felt the Corps deserved recognition as well and bestowed the society's newly created Professional Practice Ethics and Leadership Award on the Corps' former chief, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock. According to an ASCE press release, Strock was recognized for his "dedication to learning the truth about why the hurricane protection system in New Orleans failed during Hurricane Katrina, and his commitment to sharing all lessons learned with the profession, industry and public."

The Corps stands by its decision to select ASCE for the peer review. In a written statement, Steve Stockton, the Corps' director of civil works, describes ASCE as "the nation's foremost organization for the civil engineer profession." He adds that because the National Research Council also reviewed the IPET report, the Corps has "great confidence" in the peer reviews.

Although he has criticized ASCE and the Corps, Bea considers the External Review Panel's report to be valid — as far as it goes. Bea's problem with the report, apart from ASCE's involvement, is that it doesn't go far enough. For example, Bea says the ERP report as well as the IPET report and other investigations don't adequately examine the "soft issues" — the political, social and legislative factors that also played a role in the levees catastrophe. Like Levees.org and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who recently submitted a bill to create an 8/29 commission, Bea thinks only such a commission could pull together all of the reports and then conclusively identify the political and engineering mistakes that led to the levee failures.

Bea also believes choosing engineers to evaluate the Corps shouldn't be left up to ASCE, although some experts can still come from the organization's ranks. He says the best reviewers of Corps projects — past, present and future — could be retired engineers like himself.

'I don't have to have a place at any table," Bea says. "I don't need any more damn awards."

Ironically, one of those under-examined soft issues — the political process — ultimately will decide the future of peer reviews for the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Reduction Project. Graves says that peer review can't be left to the discretion of the Corps. Instead, he says, the Louisiana congressional delegation must clarify and improve in writing that project's peer review provisions and then propose it to the rest of Congress. Graves says he hopes Congress will adopt those improvements soon — as early as May or June.

Meanwhile, no one but the Corps really knows who, if anyone, is truly watching over them.

Engineering professor Bob Bea served as a member of the Independent Levee Investigation Team. Here he looks over the 17th Street Canal levee breach.
  • Engineering professor Bob Bea served as a member of the Independent Levee Investigation Team. Here he looks over the 17th Street Canal levee breach.
Bob Bea says the 17th Street Canal failure was 'foreseen' and 'foreseeable.'
  • Bob Bea says the 17th Street Canal failure was 'foreseen' and 'foreseeable.'

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