"I've worked closely with Corps personnel for 6 years in various scientific and regulatory capacities on wetlands issues. While the Corps is often maligned by environmentalists, I will be the first to defend the professionalism, commitment and skill of their regulatory field staff.This wasn't Sully, but one of his nameless "emails of the day". Still, this is important: one cannot necessarily take the word of the Army Corps of Engineers at face value, because although they did get screwed they are still the Army corps, and are required to support their Commander-in-Chief. We need independent analysis and verification before we accept the defense at face value.
The Corps, however, is Army - the institutional culture is one of top-down control and damn-the-torpedoes, and a deeply-ingrained instinct against criticising the chain of command. In an email yesterday that eventually ended up on Wonkette, I predicted that they would be good soldiers and insulate Bush against charges that the levees weren't finished, and indeed I woke up to Al Naomi saying just that on NPR. And General Strock from HQ had to be brought in to do the real damage control: "I don't see that the level of funding was really a contributing factor in this case," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, chief of engineers for the corps. "Had this project been fully complete, it is my opinion that based on the intensity of this storm that the flooding of the business district and the French Quarter would have still taken place." (from Chi Trib).
But there are really TWO questions that must be answered:
1) Was the levee complete and at design spec?
2) Would a design-spec levee have withstood Katrina?
1) The truth is that short of a whistleblower, we may never know the condition of that levee on 8/29. My source on its inadequate condition isn't solid enough. But I know the following things:
a) You don't finish levees and walk away. They need regular maintenance - even when you haven't built them on dewatered organic soils that settle every year.
b) A District that had just taken a one-year budget cut of $71 million will have had to make some very hard choices about whether maintenance on this particular levee fell (in Corps parlance) "above the line - priority" or "below the line - optional". Their SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) guidance might tell us, but somebody needs to get a FOIA cookin' on this right now.
c) The question of levee adequacy breaks down at least into "was it at spec height?" [yes!] and "was it structurally sound to spec?" [oops!]. Because of the nature of the levee failure (not overtopped, but burst), watch for Corp HQ to focus on the first question (which pins the deaths on nature), and ignore the second (which might pin the deaths on budget decisions).
2) Over the coming days, the Corps' message will be this: "Katrina was greater than the design storm for this levee." This is at least an open question - purportedly the levees were designed to withstand a direct hit from a Category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 4 at landfall, presenting her weak side to the levees at a distance of some 40-50 miles. The question appears debatable on its technical merits, and Strock's facile answer is far too politically expedient a conclusion to take at face value from Corps HQ. I have seen them fall on their sword for Presidents before, and the need has never been greater.
To sum up: Gen. Strock is asking us to accept that the Army Corps could maintain the structural integrity of every last mile of levee built on subsiding soils in a District that had taken a $71 million budget cut in one year. AND that they would admit it if they hadn't, when the reputation of the President is at stake. All my experience rejects both propositions."