Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, the new chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, promised to fulfill the commitment to bring the New Orleans hurricane protection system to a 100-year level by 2011 or "we are going to break our backs trying."

Angelle Bergeron
Lt. Gen. Van Antwerp tells New Orleanians the Corps will fulfill commitment to provide flood protection for a 100-year storm event by 2011.

Antwerp made the pledge in front of the interim gate structure at the 17th Street Canal May 31, during a three-day tour of the city, his first visit since a one-day stop in April after his nomination was blocked by Senators Mary Landrieu, D-La. and David Vitter, R-La. Van Antwerp also promised to restore trust in the Corps through personal, technical and professional assurances that include ongoing peer reviews and a formal, mid-June unveiling of a "risk and reliability" study developed as the final product of the forensic task force that analyzed the Katrina disaster in minute detail.

New Orleanians will benefit from a much heartier system during this hurricane season than they had in 2005, Antwerp says. He congratulated the team of Colonel Jeffrey Bedey, head of the Hurricane Protection Office, Colonel Richard Wagenaar, commander of the New Orleans District office and Brigadier General Robert Crear, head of the Mississippi Valley Division in Vicksburg, Miss., on a "phenomenal job" of fortifying the integrated system of pumps, gates, levees and transitions. "Walk out here and see what excellence is," he says, gesturing toward the massive temporary gate and pumps behind him. "Deliver. That is the word for the way the Corps is going to continue to operate."

Before introducing Van Antwerp, Wagenaar singled out the 17th Street Canal structure as "an engineering marvel," and indicated how the overall system and the district's readiness have been greatly enhanced. "Thirteen months ago, this was nothing but sheet pile in the ground," Wagenaar says. "We continue to make significant progress on a daily basis."

Key Corps personnel spent the preceding two days giving the chief an update on what the Corps has accomplished in the last 21 months and providing him with a crash course in hurricane and flood protection. "In terms of education, I was at Coastal 101," Van Antwerp says of his April visit. "What I'm here for this time is Coastal 201, but I'm working on my PhD."

Van Antwerp says the two issues facing New Orleans--coastal protections and restoration and emergency repairs--are two of his six top priorities. "This is the big dog down here," Van Antwerp says.

A spending measure signed by President George W. Bush on May 25 as part of the Iraq spending bill allocates $1.3 billion for the Corps to continue work on hurricane protections in New Orleans. The work will help advance projects in time to meet the 2011 goals. "We had projects that were ready to go, but we couldn't proceed with them when we were denied the opportunity to move dedicated funds," Van Antwerp says.

The Corps is committed to presenting a cost estimate on how much more funding will be needed to bring the system to 100-year levels, but Van Antwerp wouldn't hint as to the final amount. "The team is still working on it," he says. "When they roll it out, it will have the best professional judgment, engineering judgment and best science." The chief also indicated that a complete Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration technical report on hurricane risk reduction and design will be presented to Congress by December and released to the public by next summer.

The effort to restore local trust may be seriously undermined however, if the city has serious flooding this year. One issue that may cause that is a mismatch between the rated capacity of one of the city's big outfall canals to transport storm water, and the potential need. The Corps is struggling to find a way to validate an increase in the safe water elevation (SWE) rating in the London Avenue outfall canal to prevent flooding in portions of the city that could occur either in the event of a storm surge and gate closure scenario, or simply during heavy rainfall.

The Corps has proposed a load test at the London Avenue canal, where it believes the SWE to be very conservative. However, due to the contractor¹s excessively high bid, that project has been moved back, and testing isn't expected to be completed until August.

"Our goal is the raise that SWE before the height of the hurricane season," says Bedey, head of the Hurricane Protection Office. "If we get to a SWE of +5, that will greatly reduce risk." Officially, hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30, but the period from mid-July to mid-September is considered the most active part of the season.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, one of the consolidated levee boards formed in January, has been very vocal in questioning the safety and validity of the London Avenue load test. Antwerp gave assurances that the Corps will have ample personnel on the ground to monitor the test. If the test doesn¹t provide enough evidence to support increasing the SWE, "any additional testing will not be performed this hurricane season," Bedey says.