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As far back as the 1980s, studies warned that the collection of levees, walls, and floodgates that surrounded New Orleans might not withstand a storm as strong as Hurricane Katrina. Despite this, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers neglected to update a system that, in retrospect, appears to have been destined to fail. And so when Katrina hit in 2005, storm surges broke down the walls and flooded the city, causing a level of death and destruction that shocked the nation. “This is the first time that the Corps of Engineers has had to stand up and say, ‘We had a catastrophic failure in one of our projects,’” conceded then-corps chief Lieutenant General Carl Strock. As John McQuaid reported in City Adrift, the Center’s investigation into Hurricane Katrina, federal and state panels traced, respectively, 70 percent and 88 percent of the flooding to errors in design of the hurricane protection system. A federal panel, the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET), called the barriers “a system in name only.” Corps scientists knew in the 1980s that the New Orleans levees could not repel category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Robert Bea, who helped lead an investigation of the levee system by University of California at Berkeley engineers, told McQuaid that the Corps’s resistance to change slowed the adoption of new technology. After the storm, the Corps restored flood protection in New Orleans to its pre-Katrina levels, relying in some places on temporary fixes. Although by 2006 plans were in place to enhance hurricane protection in southeastern Louisiana, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Corps was “following a piecemeal approach, similar to its past practice of building projects without giving sufficient attention to the interrelationships between various elements of those projects or fully considering whether the projects will provide an integrated level of hurricane protection for the area.” As of July 2007, the federal government spent almost $100 million on hurricane recovery in the Gulf Coast. But it was still hard to know what level of protection those funds had actually bought.

For the moment, New Orleans’s flood protection systems are holding up, but in 2008, Hurricane Ike spooked Louisiana officials enough to evacuate the city. The Corps is integrating recommendations from the IPET into its work on levees in Louisiana and nationwide and has encouraged other flood protection stakeholders to follow the panel’s advice, according to a Corps spokesman.

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