Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into the levee failures that swamped New Orleans, looking into the possibility of corruption in the design, construction and maintenance of the flood barriers.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said Wednesday that his office began the investigation the week after Hurricane Katrina.
"The scope of our interest is very broad," he said.
He said some officials were found to have undisclosed conflicts of interest, and "we're extremely concerned about those." He would not give details.
James Bernazzani, FBI agent in charge in New Orleans, said agents have received numerous tips about possible malfeasance...
I don't know who wrote this, but let me know what you think.
It was a simple solution that could have prevented one of the worst disasters in the nation's history: metal gates at the mouths of New Orleans' canals that closed automatically to block hurricane storm surges on Lake Pontchartrain.
But the gates were never built. Local officials objected to the Army Corps of Engineers' plans in the 1980s, saying they would interfere with the city's antiquated network of pump stations that drain rainwater from the city.
The broken levees that flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina have their roots in decades of decisions like the one to abandon the floodgates. The decisions reach all the way to Washington, where Congress in 1992 ordered the Army Corps to abandon the gates and instead build the network of flood walls that failed, according to Al Naomi, a corps senior project manager.
One of four teams investigating the levee failures told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday that some preliminary indications of the levee failures are beginning to emerge, but it's still too early to say what caused the massive breaches.
A USA TODAY analysis of government documents and interviews with investigators, public officials and independent engineers shows that the underlying reasons for the flooding are compromises that undercut safety, miscalculations that underestimated risk and poor relations between the patchwork of agencies that oversee the miles of flood walls around New Orleans.
...Critical problems that underlie the failures behind the most costly flood in U.S. history:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ The 40-year-old analysis that served as the basis for how big to build the levees badly underestimated the potential for a large hurricane to hit the city.
The Army Corps of Engineers opted in 1965 to protect against what it believed would be the worst storm in 200 years. Congress agreed. Ivor Van Heerden, the leader of a Louisiana investigative team examining the levees, says that at least two larger hurricanes other than Katrina have hit New Orleans in the past 100 years.
By contrast, the Netherlands decided to protect itself against the worst storm possible in 10,000 years after more than 1,800 people died in a massive levee failure in 1953.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ New Orleans' levees - the result of the city's gradual growth rather than safety or efficiency - are riskier than those in neighboring communities.
Jefferson Parish, which adjoins New Orleans to the west, relies on a simpler system of levees at the lakefront to keep high water out. The levees are higher and stronger than the levees that failed on New Orleans' drainage canals.
As a result, Jefferson remained dry during Katrina.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Safety is compromised by the patchwork of governmental agencies and private firms that share responsibility for designing, building and maintaining the levee system.
Investigators found numerous leaks where two sections of levees controlled by different authorities joined, says Peter Nicholson, a civil engineering professor from the University of Hawaii who heads a levee investigation by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The problem is symbolic of a broader issue that has undercut safety over the years, say the investigators: Safety is too easily compromised because no single agency is in charge.
"You have multiple agencies, some of which aren't on speaking terms with each other," says Raymond Seed, another Berkeley professor who heads the investigative team from the National Science Foundation.
Just as the gates at the mouths of the canals were opposed by local levee and pumping agencies, environmental groups in the 1980s derailed plans to erect a structure to block storm surges from Lake Pontchartrain. Engineers now say that undercut safety.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Investigators found signs that poor maintenance of levees had compromised safety.
Bea says he believes large trees allowed to grow near levees may have contributed to the failures. Investigators say they also found leaks caused by portions of levees that had sunk and not been repaired.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ The corps, which oversees levee design and construction, has steadily lost expertise in the face of budget cuts. That's "as shocking as what happened in New Orleans itself," Seed says.
...on Nine News Thursday morning, the former advisor to former president Bill Clinton named names.
Dick Morris says over the last few years, Washington funded hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen the levee system, but some of our senators spent it on something else.
Dick Morris: "The congress and the White House voted 750 million dollars for levee repair and strengthening. It's Landrieu and the rest of the delegation out there, not counting Vitter because he just got there, but Landrieu who sidetracked the money and spent it on this stupid canal that was an economic development project. As opposed to the leee where there were no votes and no campaign contributions."
Pat Simon Q: "Now we do have some Republicans in our congressional delegation as well, on the house side."
Dick Morris: "Right. But the key movers and shakers in that I think were Landrieu and Breaux. Breaux is out of politics now. But you know I used to work for Buddy Roemer here, Roemer said I love Louisiana but I hate Louisiana politics and this is an instance where your politicians let you down because there were no votes in repairing the levee and there were no campaign contributions in doing it, so they spent the money where the pork would do them good, not where it would do New Orleans good."
A spokesman for Senator Landrieu says Dick Morris' accusations are just silly. He says the entire Louisiana delegation, democrats and republicans have worked consistently to repair and strengthen Louisiana's levee systems and that the Bush and Clinton administrations never fully funded levee funding requests.
Here's more on yesterday's Congressional testimony by Raymond Seed, who heads up a National Science Foundation team conducting a review of the levees and the floodwalls:
Several of the levees that flooded New Orleans may have been built with shoddy materials or by contractors who took shortcuts to save money, [Seed told Congress].
About a dozen people, including engineers and contractors, made the allegations of poor workmanship in recent weeks to investigators probing the levee failures, [Seed said].
The complaints focus on two canals where levees topped with flood walls were built in stages over the past 15 years. One of the claims is that contractors used steel sheets - which were driven into the levees to prevent water seepage - that were shorter than what was called for in designs. If true, that could have made the levees weak and prone to failure.
Other tipsters complained that inferior materials, such as porous soil, were used to construct the levees.
Robert Bea, another University of California, Berkeley professor working with Seed, said in an interview that he talked on the phone with two women who said they had specific information from their late husbands on construction shortcuts taken on the levees.
Seed said other investigators received similar complaints...
Repairs to New Orleans' levees may be insufficient to protect residents moving back to the devastated city if another hurricane comes before the tropical storm season ends this month, expert engineers said Wednesday.
Dozens of breaches continue to mar the city's levee system, including a large seep at the Industrial Canal last week, according to engineering experts who have examined the floodwalls...
At the Industrial Canal levee, which abuts New Orleans' obliterated Ninth Ward, repairs to breaches "were not adequate for a high-water incidence _ for instance, another hurricane storm surge with the storm season that isn't yet behind us, or even a very high tide," said Raymond B. Seed. Seed, a University of California at Berkeley engineering professor, participated in a National Science Foundation study investigating the levee failures.
The large seep at that levee, which occurred Oct. 24, "was not entirely unexpected," Seed told the panel.
However, he said, deeper walls "that will be far more stable than they were before" have been dug in at least some areas since the NSF first examined the levees.
"I don't think there is a long-term risk to the city of New Orleans," Seed said...
For Seed's full findings, see UC Berkeley: " Investigators release preliminary findings of levee failures at Senate hearing"
Here's their press release:
Many of the New Orleans levee and floodwall failures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina occurred at weak-link junctions where different levee or wall sections joined together, according to a preliminary report released today (Wednesday, Nov. 2) by independent investigators from the University of California, Berkeley, and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
Raymond Seed, UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Peter Nicholson, an associate professor of geotechnical engineering at the University of Hawaii, presented several findings at a hearing this morning in Washington, D.C., before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Seed is the head of a team investigating the levee failures with funding from the National Science Foundation and the UC Berkeley-based Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), and Nicholson is head of the ASCE geotechnical team...
The full report is in this 12.9 Meg PDF file.
Administrative officials are expected to push a set of proposals during the special session that convenes next Sunday to grant the state greater oversight of local levee boards.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced her intentions this week as a contentious debate continues to flare up regarding a series of South Louisiana levees that failed in the face of two monstrous Gulf hurricanes.
While official language for the proposed package has yet to be released, some levee officials are already worried that a consolidation or shift of power could result in a weakened local voice when it comes to hurricane and flood-protection issues.
There's also a growing concern that the two-week session isn't long enough to broach related issues such as construction priorities and land rights.
Supporters argue the move has been long coming, and topics such as coastal restoration and flood protection must be merged under one central umbrella of state control...
Much more at the link.
The head of the Orleans Levee Board has quit amid questions about no-bid contracts to his relatives in the days after Hurricane Katrina.
The final days of board president Jim Huey's tenure also had been marred by his collection of nearly $100,000 in back pay several weeks before the storm. Huey had led the board for nine years.
Huey defended the contracts and said he was legally entitled to the back pay...
"I didn't want to leave under these circumstances, but I fell victim to some other folks who don't know what they're talking about and they have to live with themselves," he said.
Huey would not say whom he was referring to.
On Sept. 1, three days after Katrina came ashore, Huey leased 3,000 square feet of office space in Baton Rouge from board legal consultant George Carmouche, a cousin of Huey's wife.
Huey said he authorized the $30,000 contact to ensure that the agency's executive staff would have a place to operate after its lakefront headquarters was decimated by Katrina's storm surge. He said he signed the lease only after state government failed to provide him a base of operation.
About a week later, Huey approved a business arrangement with Carmouche's son, Scott, to coordinate the salvage of boats damaged or destroyed by the hurricane at the board's two marinas. Huey said he was forced to move quickly on the salvage contract because the recovery of boats by insurance companies and owners was threatening to devolve into chaos.
...the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said yesterday that its official timeline had discounted eyewitness reports by its top official in New Orleans, Col. Richard Wagenaar, confirming a levee breach Monday night. Instead, the Corps said the break was confirmed at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
"We probably had some calls over the period of the night, 'Hey, this might be going on,' " said Lauren Solis, spokeswoman for the Corps task force working in New Orleans, "but with the storm and everything else, we [the Corps's district engineers] went out the first we possibly could, which was daybreak Aug. 30 . . . and confirmed with our own eyes."