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Levees: Moving Water

by Eliza StricklandSpecial to CorpWatch
August 27th, 2007

Since Katrina’s waters crumbled the levees in six places within New Orleans, the federal government’s first priority has been to restore the system of flood protection, building walls and levees that are stronger than before. Many of the projects are proceeding on schedule, and local companies are grateful that the Army Corps has awarded many construction contracts to small, woman-owned and minority-owned firms.

But according to local watchdogs, protecting the citizens of New Orleans hasn’t always been the highest priority when federal money intended for storm protection is doled out. In one case, the politically connected Moving Water Industries won a lucrative contract and proceeded to bungle an important job. In another case, the Army Corps has spent its resources pursuing a project that benefits private industry, but does nothing to protect New Orleans citizens.

Catastrophic Failure


One crucial weakness in the city’s defenses, exposed by Katrina, is the canals that run through residential neighborhoods all around New Orleans. Storm-whipped water from Lake Pontchartrain surged up the 17th Street Canal in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood, ripped a two-block-long breach in the canal levee wall, and flooded Lakeview homes with up to 14 feet of water. The London Avenue Canal was also breached, inundating the Gentilly neighborhood.

To prevent these catastrophes from recurring, the Army Corps installed massive floodgates at the mouths of three canals, which could be closed during a hurricane to prevent lake water from rushing in. The floodgates at the London Avenue, Orleans Avenue and 17th Street canals were in place by the summer of 2006, but that raised a second concern. The canals also collect rainwater and runoff during storms, and that water would be trapped inside the canal by the flood walls, creating the possibility that the collected water would breach or overtop the levees.

The Army Corps promised to put pumps in the canals in time for the 2006 hurricane season, so excess water could be pumped over the floodgate and into the lake. That the Army Corps met its deadline was rendered meaningless by the fact that the pumps didn’t work, and as internal documents later showed, the Army Corps was well aware of that failure.

The pumps were custom-designed and built by Moving Water Industries Corporation (MWI) of Deerfield Beach, Florida, which won the $26.6 million contract after competitive bidding. MWI is owned by J. David Eller, who was once a business partner of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. (From 1989 to 1993 the two operated the company Bush-El, which marketed MWI pumps.)

A 72-page memo dated May 2006, which came to light in spring 2007, details a multitude of mechanical problems exposed during the quality assurance testing. Maria Garzino, an Army Corps mechanical engineer who was overseeing the testing, wrote that the pumps were defective, and experienced “catastrophic failure” even when tested under easy conditions. They would certainly break down, she wrote, “should they be tasked to run under normal use, as would be required in the event of a hurricane.”(59)

Despite Garzino’s strong warnings, the pumps were installed in the summer of 2006. The Army Corps then spent the next year hauling them out of the water, studying their mechanical problems and rebuilding their motors.(60)

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu requested a federal audit of the contract and the work done by MWI; the Army Corps also conducted its own internal report. In addition to the technical problems both reports identified, the Army Corps report also documented accounting irregularities: Auditors found examples of double billing, and billing for pump testing that was not performed.(61)  

MWI has categorically denied the allegations that the pumps it manufactured were seriously flawed. A post on the company's website notes that the company had less than 125 days to manufacture the pumps, and says that the problems that became apparent after installation have been fixed. The post takes issue with the memo produced by Garzino, calling it "inflammatory, incomplete, misleading, inaccurate, and somewhat contradictory."(141) A spokesman for the company also pointed out that the audit conducted by the Government Accountability Office concluded that MWI won the contract because it was the only bidder that had previously constructed such large pumps. (142)

Army Corps Colonel Jeffrey Bedey, who is overseeing levee reconstruction, has argued that it was better to put in pumps that weren’t fully functional than to face the storm season with no pumps at all.(62)  

But locals haven’t bought that excuse. Matt McBride, a local resident and mechanical engineer who became one the Army Corps’ harshest critics, argues that the Army Corps’ mistakes were putting the neighborhoods around the three canals at greater risk.

“The only true solution to keep the [flood] gates from drenching New Orleans is to fire the Corps,” he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.(63)  

(Editor's Note: Moving Waters has responded to this article. The letter in full can be read at this link.)

Skewed Priorities


While the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue and London Avenue canals punctuate the northern neighborhoods of the city, the entire eastern side of the city is split by the Industrial Canal, which runs from Lake Pontchartrain to the north to the Mississippi River to the south. During Katrina, the breaches in the levees along the Industrial Canal wrought some of the worst destruction in the city – the flooding of the Lower 9th Ward, which covered parts of the neighborhood with 10 feet of water and washed a barge onto a city street.

The area still looks vacant, with cement slabs to mark where houses used to stand. But Pam Dashiell, president of a local neighborhood association, says she’s proud that people are returning to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward. “In June of 2006, we counted 60 people who had returned,” she says. “At this point, in our Lower Nine, there are maybe 1,500 people.”(64)  Yet the residents’ commitment to the city hasn’t been matched, Dashiell says; the Army Corps is distracted from its vital work on the levees by a project that would primarily benefit a wealthy and connected shipbuilder.

While the Army Corps has been working feverishly to strengthen the levees, neighbors say it is also spending money on a foolhardy project that it planned for decades: the widening of the 83-year-old lock on the Industrial Canal.

The price tag for the project is a whopping $764 million.(65)  While that money isn’t coming from the federal aid set aside for levee repairs, local activists worry that allocating so much money for the lock project will make the U.S. Congress hesitant to approve more big-ticket projects to protect New Orleans, such as additional levee repairs or coastal restoration projects. They are also concerned about the environmental impact of dredging the contaminated sediment at the bottom of the canal.

Pump House Scandal 

In Jefferson Parish, just west of New Orleans, Parish president Aaron Broussard took most of the public blame for the flooding that destroyed scores of homes. It was Broussard who ordered workers to evacuate the pump stations that were meant to pump floodwater out of the streets and into canals. Citizens were outraged that he ordered their last defenders to flee, and Broussard has tried to make amends by pushing for the construction of a series of “safe rooms,” fortified structures at each pump station where workers could shelter.

The parish council awarded a contract to the engineering firm Kyle Associates to design and inspect the safe rooms, and another to Cajun Constructors to install them. However, Cajun Constructors failed to inform the council that it partially owned Kyle Associates – meaning that one firm would be inspecting the work of its sister company, a practice forbidden by state law. (74)

Council members quickly cancelled all contracts with both companies, amid outraged comments: “For them to intentionally not obey the law is shocking,” said councilwoman Jennifer Sneed. “It is especially shocking considering how important and time-sensitive this project is.”(75)

Sneed also considered submitting a complaint to the state ethics board, but changed her mind when she learned that the board’s executive director, Gray Sexton, is also the private attorney for Cajun and a registered agent for Kyle.

Even before the council canceled the two contracts, Sexton plunged into the debate, sending a letter to them stating that the parish attorney had misunderstood the state law at issue, and accusing the council of trying to “punish a contractor who has done nothing wrong.” (76)

One year later, in July 2007, the Louisiana legislature passed an ethics reform bill, barring the head of the ethics board from taking any paid work outside his state job. The next day, Sexton quit his job as executive director of the board, and was immediately rehired as a paid advisor. “That is just the ethics board having worse ethics than the people they are trying to police,” said William Daniel IV, the state Congressman who authored the ethics bill.(77)

Residents who live near the canal have been fighting the projects for decades, says Dashiell. “But since the storm there’s been an added urgency,” she says. “So much money is needed to make the neighborhood safe and to restore the coast.”(66)

Dashiell says she wants the project cancelled entirely, and says all of the Army Corps’ resources should be dedicated to preventing another disaster such as Katrina. “There’s no safety aspect to the lock project at all,” she says. “It’s a maritime project for the benefit of the maritime industry.”(67)

The biggest beneficiary will be Bollinger Shipyards, Inc. – the only shipyard with a repair dock on the north side of the lock. Bollinger’s CEO, Donald “Boysie” Bollinger, served on the Board of the Port of New Orleans, the project sponsor, until 2002. This CEO also has friends in high places. He served as the Louisiana chairman of President George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, and in 2004 he bundled more than $300,000 in individual contributions for the president’s re-election bid. The two men have gone rabbit hunting together.(68)  

The politically powerful company has a history of getting government subsidies for its projects, on the assumption that its facilities provide good jobs for New Orleanians. In 2005, the state spent $10 million building Bollinger a dry dock, and also planned to build a $20 million shipyard where the company could work on Navy projects. (This plan was put on hold when Navy orders slowed.)(69)  
The Port and the Army Corps have justified the lock expansion, saying that the aging facility is causing long delays as traffic increases on the canal. But the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense has taken issue with the Army Corps’ sunny assessment that traffic on the waterway had grown by 50 percent since 1998. In a 2004 report, the group claimed that traffic had actually decreased by 50 percent in that period. (70)

Neighborhood groups fighting the project in federal court since 2003 got a break last October, when the judge ordered the Army Corps to complete a new environmental impact review. The Army Corps “should revisit the project in light of recent catastrophic events,” wrote the judge. (71)

This spring, a coalition of environmental, community and taxpayer watchdog groups issued a call to abandon the lock expansion once and for all. It appears that Louisiana politicians are finally listening. U.S. Senator David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, told the Times-Picayune that although traffic at the New Orleans Port was important to the area’s economic recovery, the reality is that “without proper hurricane protection, we will not have a port system.”(72)

“We are billions of dollars short in levee funds that are critical to our hurricane protection,” Vitter said. (73)

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