The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ $14.6-billion drive to bring New Orleans’ hurricane defenses to 100-year levels of protection by June 2011 could fundamentally change the way U.S. civil-works projects are funded and delivered, project leaders say.

The Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, or HSDRRS, is the largest civil-works construction program in Corps history. It was launched in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Already, on the fifth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and with a year’s construction yet to go, the works now in place provide the area with “the best perimeter defense against hurricane storm surge in its history,” says Karen Durham-Aguilera, director for Task Force Hope, the organization managing the program.

The scale of the effort in south Louisiana is extraordinary, especially when compared to the rest of the Corps’ annual civil-works budget of $5 billion, with $2 billion for construction. “This whole effort has been inordinate,” Durham-Aguilera says.

“Being fully funded up front, we were able to develop a risk-based programmatic cost estimate and use a lot of acquisition techniques that we’ve traditionally only used with the military construction program,” Durham-Aguilera says. “We were able to show how quickly we can deliver a program, and maybe that will translate to future capital investments. We’ve shown that with the right design partners and input from the public, you can do amazing things.”

Colonel Robert Sinkler, commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, which was established in 2006 to help deliver the work, says 15 to 20 years of construction have been completed in 36 months. “We are shattering all previous civil-works efforts in speed and magnitude,” Sinkler says.

Even the Dutch engineers on the project are impressed. “The delta plan for New Orleans has been carried out 10 times faster than the Dutch delta plan after the floods of 1953,” says Piet Diercke, global director of water knowledge for Arcadis NV, a Netherlands-based international design firm with a specialty in water resources engineering that has a Colorado-based branch in the U.S. “It took the Dutch about 40 to 50 years. It took the Americans about four to five years,” Diercke says. He predicts that, once all the analysis is complete, the HSDRRS in New Orleans will provide a global example for water-resource projects and best practices.

New Standards, New Records

The HSDRRS comprises multiple projects. The Corps has used design-build and early contractor involvement—its version of construction manager-at-risk—to expedite several of them. Additionally, research and development on everything having to do with levees, from grasses and soils to rock-armoring, has been ongoing, Durham-Aguilera says. “We don’t want to lose what we’ve learned here,” she says. The Corps is assembling best practices on acquisition methods and construction techniques that will be used going forward, she says.

Component projects like the $1.3-billion Inner Harbor Navigation Canal-Lake Borgne storm-surge barrier testify to the efficiency with which the Corps and its partners can deliver critical water-resource projects using design-build. The IHNC surge barrier—the largest design-build civil-works project in the history of the Corps—broke ground in December 2008; by September 2010, it is almost complete.

“Under the normal circumstance of trying to do design-bid-build, [prime contractor Shaw Environmental, Baton Rouge, La.] said it would have taken easily seven or eight years of construction,” Durham-Aguilera says. “We were able to dramatically accelerate that delivery.”

Work continues at a furious pace in the face of the June 2011 deadline, but the program already boasts a list of “bests” and “firsts” for the Corps, as well as for the architectural/engineering community and construction industry:

• Shaw Environmental has completed 99% of the 1.8-mile-long IHNC surge barrier, the longest barrier wall in the world.

• In a joint venture, Archer Western Contractors, Atlanta, Ga., and Alberici Constructors, St. Louis, are performing deep-soil mixing on a 5.3-mile stretch of levee in eastern New Orleans. It is the largest deep-soil mixing project “in the Western Hemisphere, maybe the world,” Sinkler says.

• Archer Western, along with design support from URS Corp., San Francisco, expects to achieve the fastest consolidation of an earthen levee on a seven-mile reach now under construction in New Orleans.