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Army Corps Races to Rebuild New Orleans Levees

February 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

KEVIN WAGNER: This is my house in the background right here, 3301 Charles Court.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Like thousands of people from St. Bernard Parish, Kevin Wagner lost his home to Katrina. His brother lost this house nearby, and a neighbor’s family lost something irreplaceable.

KEVIN WAGNER: The father and the son survived. They went from rooftop to rooftop to get to this two-story house here, but she didn’t make it. She drowned.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So when Wagner puts on his hard hat and goes to work for the Army Corps of Engineers, he is a determined man. The third-generation St. Bernard Parish native is in charge of rebuilding the same levee that was washed away by Katrina and destroyed his home.

KEVIN WAGNER: My family was affected by the storm, so this is very personal, and I’ve got very many friends, family and neighbors that all want to come back to this area, and they are waiting for us to see what happens with this levee construction.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He and his crew are working hard to fix the 76-mile-long levee adjacent to the Mississippi River Gulf outlet, which locals refer to as “Mr. Go.” On Aug. 29 last year, MR-GO lived up to its unfortunate nickname. As the storm surge from Katrina came in, MR-GO went. Eleven miles of it were destroyed.

Rebuilding MR-GO is a race against time, because the Army Corps of Engineers has promised that they will rebuild all the damaged levees to pre-Katrina conditions by June 1, the start of hurricane season.

Col. Lewis Setliff heads the New Orleans operation for the Army Corps of Engineers.

COL. LEWIS SETLIFF III: Phase-one repair that we have engineered here at the 17th Street will withstand a storm surge equivalent to what would be associated with a Category 3 hurricane. I am very confident that we are building these levees to a point where not only will they meet the specifications, but they will be better than they were before.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: As Louisiana State Professor Paul Kemp rides alongside MR-GO, he doesn’t see how the work will be done in time. Kemp was one of the first scientists to demonstrate with computer models that water did not overtop the levees, as the corps said early on. His findings showed water actually came through the levees in some places. In other words, at points the levees failed. Now he questions another assertion: That the corps could keep its promise.

PAUL KEMP: My thinking is that it should be crawling with earth-moving equipment and compactors. That would be kind of what we would expect if we were talking about actually getting something serious by June 1.

KEVIN WAGNER: As our colonel says, success is the only option and failure is not, and that’s our intent. We will be done by 1 June We’re going to have this levee up seventeen and a half feet. That’s the original design grade. Actually it will be a little bit higher because we put an additional two and a half feet of material on top to allow for future settlement and subsidence.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Wagner explained the best levees are built of a combination of materials, but the most important one is clay because it doesn’t crumble when exposed to strong water forces.

KEVIN WAGNER: This is some good imported clay material that we are actually bringing in from Mississippi. We plan on bringing them on in by barge, as you can see in the background here, and we plan on using it in this area of levee that we’re actually standing on.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Wagner is also counting on getting clay from what the engineers call a borrow pit. Using heavy construction equipment, they’re literally borrowing material from the washed-away levee and putting it back where MR-GO once was. But experts who’ve inspected the Army Corps’ work question the quality of the soil they say is being used.

BOB BEA: In differing locations along the length of the MR-GO levee, we stopped, I got out and collected the soil samples.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bob Bea is a civil engineer from the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a member of an independent team investigating why the levees failed. Bea recently took three samples of soil from MR-GO and had them tested.

BOB BEA: This material is relatively sandy, comes from probably something that is like a beach that has had clay mixed into it.

Now the concern for such material is underwater erosion like comes from waves that are building up against the levee, we want this material not to be very erosive under water action.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It falls apart.

BOB BEA: It falls apart.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The same thing happened when two other soil samples were placed under the water.

BOB BEA: Well, we’ll mix these three things together, do a fairly good job like a bulldozer would do and then you can watch what the effect is. It will wash away actually easier because of the peat humus and the fine-grained materials that have been incorporated into the sample.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you think of that?

BOB BEA: Well, I think I wouldn’t want to build a home behind this levee.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He says instead the corps should be using Pleistocene clay, which is found in abundance in the New Orleans area.

BOB BEA: Now this material, when you put it under water won’t erode. It’s extremely resistant to the force of water, so that as waves and surge are building up against this segment of the levee it’ll behave essentially as though the water wasn’t there. It’ll act like a dam.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A spokesman for the corps said the soil being put into the levee is “exceeding our expectations for shear strength” and that Pleistocene clay is “not necessary” to build a strong and reliable levee.

Bea also maintains the original MR-GO was built inadequately and questions rebuilding something he thinks wasn’t done right in the first place.

BOB BEA: It was badly flawed in concept, design, construction, then we followed that into operations and maintenance, and it caught up with us. We’ve actually met and talked with the engineers that were on the site at the time they built this levee, and at that time they knew they were using dredged spoil from the construction of MR-GO.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Which is below their standards?

BOB BEA: Is below their standards.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: They knowingly built a levee below their own standards in the first place?

BOB BEA: And that’s correct.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And now they’re building it back to what it was before, and it didn’t work?

BOB BEA: And that’s correct.

COL. LEWIS SETLIFF III: We have the ability to restore what was here pre-Katrina, and that was a system that’s lasted for decades; it’s protected this city for decades; and the prudent step is to let’s do that, let’s get to what level of protection we had before the storm.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And in spite of criticism from both the independent investigative group and from a state forensic team, the corps’ official position today is that it still doesn’t know what went wrong.

COL. LEWIS SETLIFF III: I think we may find that the design parameters were exceeded in some areas, so there are a lot of factors involved that we need to make sure that we know what happened, and if someone particular or an agency is accountable, and if it was the Corps of Engineers, we’ll take responsibility for it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Members of the investigative team are also critical on another front. They say the corps has tried to block their work.

Two weeks ago the team had to get help from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office to get onto the corps’ 17th Street Canal construction site to take soil samples. Meanwhile, just a few yards away, Col. Setliff was denying to us there was any conflict.

COL. LEWIS SETLIFF III: We’re not hiding anything. We need people to help us and we will accept any outside — whether it is a university or other government agencies coming in to help us. But our obligation is to make these repairs. It’s very dangerous areas at times, so we have to do that safely; we can’t have everybody just showing up at these construction sites.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So you are not discouraging scientists from doing their work?

COL. LEWIS SETLIFF III: Not at all, absolutely not at all.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: With hurricane season just around the corner, local residents are rooting for the corps. St. Bernard Parish native Jeff Pohlmann is back and has his Today’s Catch restaurant up and running again making gumbo, etouffee, and po-boys. But he’s worried.

JEFF POHLMANN: Three big concerns: Levees, levees, levees. I’m just hoping that they will take these levees to a much higher elevation to guarantee us that we won’t relive another Katrina. Everybody I’m talking to is scared to come back for that reason. And I can’t blame them, including myself.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Kevin Wagner says he wants to make believers of people like Pohlmann.

KEVIN WAGNER: If we’ve got to make the contractors go 24-hour operations and bring out whatever lights are necessary to light up the world out here, we’ll go ahead and do that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Should people in St. Bernard Parish sleep easy at night?

KEVIN WAGNER: Well, not until we get the levee finished.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The independent team expects to issue its report on the levee failures in April. Meanwhile, the corps says its own investigation won’t be completed until June.