Speaking of the Corps, The Country, Infrastructure, Iraq and New Orleans

New Orleans, Louisiana and the Corps of Engineers have recently been badly reviewed by critics in national media outlets. Engineering News-Record wanted to hear the Corps’ response to some of the criticisms being made and to ask its reconstruction leaders what they believe is happening with flood protection and the future of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana.

Angelle Bergeron, ENR’s New Orleans correspondent, met on Aug. 15 with Col. Jeffrey Bedey, head of the Hurricane Protection Office, Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of Task Force Hope, and Lt. Col. Murray Starkel, deputy commander with the New Orleans District. A native New Orleanian, Bergeron says she “is not drunk on a daily cocktail of denial,” as one particularly negative article asserts all locals must be, but says she still wanted ask the brass about what is being done to correct past mistakes, what the plan is going forward and whether she and others are foolish to remain in New Orleans.

ENR: Sometimes it seems that the media portray the Corps as if you all are down here on some big conspiracy, creating a smoke screen and frittering away tax dollars on useless repairs in an effort to divert attention from the fact that you screwed up and New Orleans is beyond recovery. Come clean. Do you think all of your efforts here are worth it? Can New Orleans be protected, and can you do it by 2011? 

Brief Bio: Bedey

Col. Jeffrey A. Bedey has been Commander of the Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans, La., since June 1, 2006. He oversees one of the most massive civil works projects in U.S. history, the construction of the federal flood protection system that protects the city of New Orleans and southeast Louisiana. The major focus of this project is the rebuilding of flood-control structures damaged during Hurricane Katrina and the construction of new structures and pump stations to protect the area in the future.


Bedey: The answer is that, working together as a team, we can do it. We can provide 100-year protection by the 2011 hurricane season. That will continue to require a team effort from the Corps and all its stakeholders from the local and state level all the way to the folks in D.C. Working together, we can achieve anything.

Durham-Aguilera: The hurricane system that exists here is stronger and better than it ever was before Katrina. Economic recovery continues to get better as the system is improved. We know what the risk is. We’re communicating it, and we’re doing what it takes to improve the system.

ENR: Between National Geographic, Time magazine and the local Times-Picayune, the Corps has been painted as bumbling and inept at best and dirty and clandestine at worst. What is your response to the ongoing finger-pointing at past mistakes?

Bedey: This is really a defining moment for the nation as a whole in aftermath of the largest national disaster. We can learn from the past, but we can’t change it. We choose to focus on the future, but we are taking steps to truly operate in a manner that is consistent with the lessons we’ve learned.

Durham-Aguilera: We were all really upset when we saw that article by Time.
( view official Corps response). The “we” is more than just the Corps of Engineers. It is also the people that we work with who are working far beyond the physical construction to try to restore the economic vitality and the heartbeat of the city. Our job as the Corps is to get the facts out, whether it’s good facts or bad facts, to be openly transparent in all we do, warts and all, and also to continue to emphasize what the current risk is to anyone who lives here. As public servants, we have to have thick skin, and we have to be able to address any tough criticism, which is often helpful because it helps us do better. But it’s not helpful when you see something that doesn’t treat things in a factual manner and ignores all the science and engineering that we bring to bear as we try to improve the hurricane protection system.

ENR: The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, dug by the Corps in the late 1950s and early 1960s, has repeatedly been blamed for flooding in St. Bernard Parish and commonly referred to as “the weakest link” in the hurricane protection system. I thought the Corps pinpointed the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal as the weakest link. Explain to me the discrepancy and why it is continually misrepresented.

Brief Bio: Starkel

Lt. Col. Murray Starkel was assigned as the deputy commander and deputy district engineer of the Corps’ New Orleans District on July 10, 2005, a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina cut a path of destruction through southeast Louisiana. Starkel has been involved in providing direction for hurricane restoration activities, including  the re-establishment of the New Orleans District, unwatering of New Orleans, re-construction of hurricane protection facilities to pre Katrina levels, and, currently, pursuit of hurricane protection to authorized and 100-year protection levels.


Starkel: There is, I think, a misunderstanding because of the confluence of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the Gulf Intercoastal Water Way and where those two meet. The water has to go somewhere. That’s the funnel effect. So the “hurricane highway” that they refer to as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet is really only one of those features. You have the entire Lake Borgne approach, which is bounded on the north by the GIWW and on the south by the MRGO. When the water level gets above four feet or so above sea level, those wetlands disappear. We talk to fishermen who've been out there for storms and they can tell you that, as far as your eyes can see, there are no wetlands. It’s open water.  So when that system is overwhelmed, you’ve got a huge body of water that is trying to get into that confluence of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the Gulf Intercoastal Water Way and the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal.

Bedey: The buildup, as we saw in Katrina, is what forced the water ultimately into the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal and was one of the key contributing factors to the catastrophic failure of the wall in the lower ninth ward. Maybe one of the most pronounced effects of the MRGO came from an environmental perspective, and that was the saltwater intrusion from the MRGO.

ENR: Why has the Corps decided to close the MRGO?

Durham-Aguilera: We have a report due by the end of the year to Congress with recommendations to close it. That was a project envisioned decades ago...