Monday, September 1, 2008

New Orleans OK So Far

Image credit: Enhanced infra-red image by NOAA. Reduced and captioned by Cujo359

That's a satellite infra-red image of New Orleans from a couple of hours ago. If a 100 mile-wide storm can be said to miss a city, then Gustav just missed New Orleans. According to Reuters, it hit the coast as a Category 2 storm.

Hurricane Gustav slammed ashore on the U.S. Gulf Coast just west of New Orleans on Monday, hammering the city devastated by Katrina in 2005 with surging floodwaters that threatened its rebuilt levees.

The storm was weaker than had been feared. But waves splashed over floodwalls containing the New Orleans Industrial Canal, triggering a tense watch over the barrier system that failed three years ago, flooding 80 percent of the city and stranding thousands of people.

Hurricane Gustav tests New Orleans levees

That's a good thing, because as Dana Hunter points out, some of those levees weren't rebuilt very well:

“That should be criminal,” [St. Bernard parish president Craig] Taffaro continues.

What he's talking about was witnessed by a St. Bernard Parish resident who didn't want to be identified, but did have sharp criticism of the work done by a contractor hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It's like putting a Band-Aid on the hole of a gas tank of an airplane,” the resident said.

Instead of an airplane, it's a floodwall, and instead of a Band-Aid, the witness says two years ago, he saw the contractor filling the expansion joint or opening between the floodwalls with newspaper.

4 Investigates: Floodwalls stuffed with newspaper?

Expansion joints are necessary in any large masonry structure, like some of the floodwalls around New Orleans. Their function is to allow the large pieces of masonry to expand and contract in the heat and cold without cracking. They have to be filled with something - preferably something that is strong, flexible, and isn't water soluble. This is an Army Corps of Engineers photo of one such joint, which is located in the St. Charles Floodwall. Over the short term, newspaper was an adequate expedient, but these newsprint expansion joints weren't a short-term solution, as it turned out:

But during a recent trip to the area, two years later, it was apparent [a replacement with proper materials] didn't happen. Much of the newspaper had deteriorated or been eaten by bugs, but some still remained. In fact WWL cameras even captured the date May 21, 2006, on a page of the Parade magazine from the Times-Picayune.

4 Investigates: Floodwalls stuffed with newspaper?

What would proper materials be? According to the news story:

[T]he Army Corps of Engineers says it is confident the floodwall will sufficiently defend residents of St. Bernard and the Ninth Ward.

“If you look at the repairs we made to the joints, there's not really a safety issue with the joints at all,” said Kevin Wagner with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps also says it’s satisfied with the quality of work done by its contractor. When asked by WWL if there was any shoddy work involved, Wagner said, “I don't think so at all.”

But days before that interview, after a request by Eyewitness News , another Corps employee e-mailed the Corps’ standards for expansion joint construction and in that e-mail, the Corps employee describes the specific materials needed as "sponge rubber" that goes next to the waterstop. That’s the same spot where a witness saw a contractor stuffing newspaper back in 2006.

4 Investigates: Floodwalls stuffed with newspaper?

[emphasis mine]
I'm not a civil engineer, but that's the sort of material I was imagining they should have used. It's flexible and waterproof. If it's the right sort of rubber, it should last for a long time.

If I hadn't spent the last eight years in George W. Bush's America, I'd have said this was unbelievable. As it is, it sounds par for the course.

Anyhow, so far the floodwalls and levees seem to be holding:

In the end, it was just a glancing blow. And for that, the Big Easy let out a big sigh of relief.

A weakened Hurricane Gustav blew into southern Louisiana Monday morning as a less-fearsome Category 2 storm, bearing 110 mile-per-hour winds that cracked tree branches, knocked out power to a million homes and triggered localized flooding, but apparently spared the vulnerable New Orleans levee system.

Gustav hits, but New Orleans escapes worst

It's a bit early to know for sure that NOLA will be OK this time. Recall that it wasn't until hours after the storm had passed that the levees began failing. As the Chicago Tribune article points out, there wasn't the same sort of deluge after Gustav that followed Katrina. Still, soggy ground takes some time to dry out, and that's where the problems will be if they happen.

Meanwhile, we'll just have to hope that the city can survive another bout with Bush Administration incompetence.

UPDATE (Sep. 2): I did something I probably should have done before, which is check for followup stories on the expansion joints being filled with newspapers. Turns out that there was a followup story about a month later, explaining that the Corps had inspected the joints in question, and claimed to have fixed them:

Corps officials told Eyewitness News that in the three expansion joints they inspected earlier this week, five of the six spots had newspaper instead of the proper backing material. Corps officials say it took about four hours to remove the newspaper, install the rubber material, then seal the joint.

So, while it was sloppy to have not followed up on this earlier, apparently the ACE took the story seriously and did correct the problem.

On a related note, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced today that citizens would be able to re-enter the city in a matter of days.

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