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Mud Pies in the Sky

September 18, 2009
by Patrick Dillon
people in a muddy field

Robert Bea has seen what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is doing

Engineering Professor Rogert G. Bea brought unique bona fides to the academic team investigating the New Orleans levee failure. In addition to his 48 years as a civil engineer, including 19 as a Berkeley educator, he has the benefit of his father’s career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the government agency overseeing reconstruction of the levees. Bea has been a Corps engineer himself. And he has firsthand experience with hurricane losses—his New Orleans home was destroyed during Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

Following his first inspection of the levee reconstruction in the winter of 2006, Bea issued a blistering report concluding that even prior to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 corrupt agencies and contractors had doomed the levees with shoddy engineering and construction, creating a “time bomb.” “Nothing matched up. You’d have a high concrete structure right next to a lower, weak soil structure,” he pointed out. “And they were both responsible for holding water out. You know water’s going to the low point. Water just loves to scour stuff, so it’s called ‘good-bye dirt.'”

Bea also discovered troubling flaws in the reconstruction. In the aftermath of the nation’s costliest disaster, good money was being poured after bad, he suggested, in his salty Southern twang. It was actually more like pouring bad dirt on bad dirt, said the 72-year-old engineer, who has spent nearly half a century studying, designing, and consulting on marine construction. Bea issued another scathing report, “They were putting diarrhea back in these breaches,” he said. “They were scooping this mud up from right behind the breach and it was running out of the buckets even as they were going to the holes to pour the stuff in.”

As a result of his reports to Congress, the Corps announced it would improve efforts to secure the levees. But during a follow-up inspection earlier this year, during which he flew over the reconstruction project, Bea found stretches of the restored earthen levees to be already eroding. He suggested armoring the levees with rock and concrete, a tactic successfully executed in the Netherlands. The Corps subsequently upgraded the quality of soil it would use to close the breaches.

Later this spring, at the request of National Geographic, he returned again to New Orleans. From a low-flying helicopter, Bea directed a photographer and editor to the areas of his concern. “The photographer is taking pictures of the levee that is now filled with crevasses, rivulets, and cracks. It’s from either rainwater or seawater,” he concluded. “We have now created ‘tear-on-the-dotted-line levees.’ Because when water gets in, it’s going to tear this stuff apart. I call it ‘icing on angel food cake,’ because it eats out the soft stuff under it and then you’re breached.” Bea has little patience for the Corps’s retort that the levee construction is still a work in progress. “It is a work in progress, but the poor people behind it don’t know that. They’re rebuilding their homes, their lives, and their communities. I was there and watching them. They’re being told, ‘well, it’s better than it was before Katrina.’ Before Katrina it wasn’t OK. Don’t tell me it’s better. Maybe it’s one inch better than it was before Katrina. But if I’m living there, I’m still going to get my life blasted again. That’s not OK.”

Beyond the construction deficiencies he has detected, Bea is convinced a greater problem exists, not only for New Orleans but also for the nation. He recalls talking with a frustrated engineer, a former Corps colleague who is currently helping direct Task Force Hope, the reconstruction of the levee system. “‘Bob, the Corps of Engineers is not like it was when you or your dad were with us,’ he told me. ‘We have taken engineering out of the corps of Engineers.’ He went on, ‘we have had to be better, faster, cheaper. Congress was always beating up on us because we were always behind schedule and over budget.’ “Remember, the Corps is a Department of Defense agency,” Bea said, unable to contain his frustration. “There’s a thread there. It turns up in Iraq, doesn’t it? It’s so consistent it isn’t funny.”

He has even written a report calling for a federal commission hearing similar to the 9/11 congressional panel investigation. Drawing parallels between Katrina and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bea says that the issue in both cases is not a hateful crime versus a natural act, but rather a lack of preparedness. But he reasons that the lack of political interest in New Orleans centers on a perception of the city itself. “Poor bunch of kooky people, some of them black, a few of them yellow, most of them kind of white with funny twangs. They chose to live there. They don’t produce shit. Screw ’em.

“There’s actually a tremendous opportunity for good here,” he says, his frustration ratcheting up even further. “But, boy, are we doing everything not to take positive action on it. we have the engineering to build a fence across the U.S.–Mexico border …. We can build a protective barrier around New Orleans. The technology does exist. We know how to do it in a way that will be sustainable and keep the world happy.”

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