CHICAGO—One of the most highly anticipated educational sessions of the 2006 American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Annual Civil Engineering Conference, held Oct. 19-21, focused on lessons the civil engineering industry can learn from past failures. "Lessons for the Civil Engineering Profession from Hurricane Katrina," a panel moderated by ASCE Deputy Executive Director Lawrence H. Roth, P.E., G.E., F.ASCE, concentrated on the failure of the Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Protection System during and after Hurricane Katrina, and the results of the various organizations that have conducted related studies.

Within days of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) launched an investigation, which followed a three-step process: get the facts through the USACE Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET); verify the facts based on interaction with the ASCE External Review Panel; and synthesize the facts with the National Research Council Independent Review Panel and public forums.

With more than 350 miles of levees in the New Orleans area, Donald L. Basham, P.E., M.ASCE, chief, Engineering and Construction, USACE, said that one of the main considerations of the system is not only what failed, but also, why did some levees fail and others did not? "Even without the breaching of the levees, there would have been significant damage from overtopping. The system was simply over-flooded," said Basham.

During the flooding from Hurricane Katrina, the USACE received criticism for allowing the levee breaches to remain—and even for creating some breaches—to drain water out of the city. According to Basham, it was the best thing the USACE could do. He said the water could not be pumped any more quickly than the rate at which it was draining through the breaches.

In conclusion, Basham remarked that out of the devastation, a positive result is that the USACE will change the way it does business, as will the entire civil engineering industry. In August, Lieutenant General Carl A. Strock released the "12 Actions for Change," a set of actions that the USACE will focus on to transform its priorities, processes, and planning.

Lewis E. Link, Ph.D., senior research engineer, University of Maryland, and director, IPET, explained that its studies are based on a forensic analysis and system-wide assessment. Throughout its studies, IPET considered how the Hurricane Protection System was designed, and if it was built the way it was designed.

According to Link, an enormous amount of subsidence resulted in levees that were a few feet lower than planned. Also, the Hurricane Protection System was not scheduled to be complete until 2015, which left some areas unfinished. In addition, the levees were built with erodible materials that were especially vulnerable to breaching. Levees built with clay withstood the flooding, but still overtopped.

David E. Daniel, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, president, University of Texas at Dallas, and chair, ASCE External Review Panel, discussed the conclusions of the ASCE External Review Panel. According to Daniel, there were no major disagreements with IPET, and ASCE was pleased with its work. As a result of the ASCE External Review Panel’s in-depth review of the comprehensive work of IPET, a national "call to action" was issued, which outlined a set of essential recommendations for overcoming the deficiencies in the region’s hurricane protection system and instituting real change in its governance, management, and engineering.

Daniel stressed the importance of remembering the ASCE Code of Ethics, which state, "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties."

John T. Christian, Ph.D., P.E., Hon.M.ASCE, consulting engineer, and member, National Research Council Committee on New Orleans Regional Hurricane Protection Projects, reported the following critiques of the National Research Council: the engineering of the levees was not adequate, and USACE has not maintained its engineering capability; a certain amount of complacency is to blame for the system’s failure; and the levees should not have been treated as protection of real estate, but as dams to protect people. In addition, there must be independent peer reviews of all future designs and construction.

— Elizabeth Collins