The blame game in Katrina’s aftermath

September 2006 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
Even now, as the people of the Gulf Coast seek to recover and dig themselves out from the disaster, the folly and greed that contributed to the human suffering are being repeated.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.

The Random House College Dictionary defines aftermath as "that which results or follows from an event, especially one of a disastrous or violent nature." It will be many years before we have full knowledge of the end result of the "disastrous or violent event" that we call Hurricane Katrina. However, even now, as the people of the Gulf Coast seek to recover and dig themselves out from the disaster, the folly and greed that contributed to the human suffering are being repeated. A recent opinion on the editorial page of the New York Times pointed out that "thieves and wastrels feasting in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have been doing a heck of a job, too—pushing the [total] in government loot toward $2 billion and counting."

It is unfortunate that the true heroes of the Gulf Coast area—emergency responders, healthcare providers, engineers, military personnel, and others who were on the scene and did their best to succor the people who suffered through Katrina—are not the ones who have most of the power to restore the area to its former glory. I choose the word "glory" intentionally. I well remember the Gulf Coast from at least three visits to the area during my younger days—both business and professional trips. Glory is the appropriate word.

Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge (see my column in the August issue of CE News), pointed out that there were heroes galore during and after the flood. But none of them were political hacks who controlled the purse strings and directed the use of human and technical resources that were needed to pull Gulf Coast residents up by their bootstraps. Brinkley rightly claimed that the so-called "Cajun Navy"—rural Cajun residents who hauled their boats to New Orleans following the hurricane—performed its great feats of rescue (many of which have been documented) simply because they wanted to ease human suffering in the disaster's aftermath.

But politicians could have done the most to alleviate the human suffering, and they didn't. The president, the secretary of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which actually prevented some rescuers from doing more), the mayor of New Orleans, and the governor of Louisiana all contributed to the inept reaction. Hurricane Katrina's victims needed help right away, but the magnitude of the assistance, while substantial, was not even close to what the nation easily could have provided.

Private resources, including the good work done by individuals nationwide who disrupted their own lives to help the stricken people get back on their feet, did more than expected. Governmental agencies, on the other hand, which should have been primarily responsible for spearheading recovery efforts, did far less than should have been done.

Engineering failures

With that said, however, we should downgrade our condemnation of those involved in some of the technical failures that occurred. The engineers who are or were employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other public agencies knew well enough what was needed to protect the people of the Gulf Coast. I know some of them. In many cases, they were prevented from using resources—tools and knowledge—that should have been available to them to protect the low-lying area along the Gulf.

It is clear from newspaper accounts and technical publications that politicians hampered more than one agency. It also is amply clear that the engineers, who have ultimate responsibility for assuring that the structures they design to protect life and property from catastrophic events, were not always permitted to have the last word regarding design standards. In many cases, financially restrictive standards were imposed on the work that they were trying to implement. I think that many of the obstacles placed in their path were politically motivated.

Based on my reading, some of the problems encountered in the field include the following:

  • use of soils that did not meet the standards that should have been required given the unstable conditions encountered along the Gulf Coast;
  • improper or inadequate cross-sectional design of concrete and steel barriers placed along canals and on top of levees;
  • driven steel barriers, which, probably for economic reasons, were not deep enough; and
  • insufficient pumping capacity in some locations.

Engineers who have more accurate and complete knowledge than I, certainly could testify to other deficiencies. However, based on the public accounts I have seen, it is my opinion that engineers responsible for the design of protective structures ultimately were hampered by politicians and by economic restraints imposed on their designs.

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201-441-9719; or e-mail him at pagan@cenews.com.


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