Editorial: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, Failed Levees

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday May 23, 2006

On Monday two UC Berkeley professors, Raymond Seed and Robert Bea, professors of civil and environmental engineering, presented the findings of an independent investigation team of 36 engineers and scientists from around the nation which they led in studying why the levees in New Orleans failed after Hurricane Katrina. Previous reports, including one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, seemed to indicate that the failure of the levees was more or less inevitable, given the severity of the storm. But this independent team, whose members (except for a few graduate students) were working pro bono, free in the public interest, had a different take on what went wrong. Which turned out to be almost everything…. 

The report of the Independent Investigation Team (IIT) stressed the fact that levee design was not subjected to the same peer review process commonly used in dam design. It notes that “such review would have likely caught and challenged errors and poor judgments (both in engineering and in policy and funding) that led to failures during Hurricane Katrina.” A repeated complaint in the report is that cheap solutions were consistently chosen over safe solutions, or in the more polite prose of the report “there was a persistent pattern of attempts to reduce costs of constructed works, at the price of corollary reduction in safety and reliability. This represented a policy that has now been shown to be ‘penny wise and pound foolish.’” One example: the use of cheap sandy dredged materials instead of packed clay to fill levees. 

The investigators are engineers, not politicians, but their report takes a sharp look at the political processes which produced this result. Their conclusion is that there were many different things which all went wrong and caused “the resulting catastrophe.”  

Two major categories, in addition to the hurricane itself, are targeted. One is “the poor performance of the flood protection system, due to localized engineering failures, questionable judgments, errors, etc.” The first half of the report details all of these in exhaustive detail. The second is institutional problems with the interactions between national, state and local agencies responsible for the flood protection system’s design, construction and maintenance. 

One problem highlighted is the recent history of pressures put on the Corps of Engineers to do more with less, to “do their projects better, faster, and cheaper.” The report compares these pressures to those on the National Aeronautics and Space Agency which were uncovered after the shuttle disaster: “Our study indicates that, as in the case of NASA, technical and engineering superiority and oversight [were] compromised in attempts to respond to all of these constraints and pressures.” 

Penny wise and pound foolish, indeed. This report might be taken as an indictment of almost everything that’s wrong with our current governmental systems at all levels. The Bush administration is gleefully cutting taxes for the rich, and thereby exposing the rest of the citizens to hazards of all kinds from which they have a right to be protected. 

The IIT report’s findings and conclusions section contains recommendations that could profitably be applied to everything done by government. In particular, Recommendation 2 is to “Exploit the major and unprecedented role that exists for citizens who should be considered part of governance in the spirit that those who govern do so at the informed consent of the governed….the public protected by the [New Orleans Flood Defense System] need to be encouraged to actively and intelligently interact with its development.” In other words, the people who are at risk should be “asked for their informed consent especially regarding tradeoffs of safety for cost.” Good idea. 

The report is a generally fine piece of engineering analysis. Its flaws are the mirror of its virtues: if anything, it’s too engineering-heavy. The list of its contributors shows no obvious ecologists, biologists or historians, all of whom might have added dimension to the discussion. A traditional American failure mode is to believe that everything can be fixed by engineers, when sometimes what’s wrong was the initial choice of task. Besides trying to figure out what’s the best way to fix the levees, as a society we should also be considering how the choice of draining wetlands and holding back the sea was made in the first place, and whether it could or should be reversed in part.  

The report makes a few slighting references to environmental impact studies, hinting that the Corps of Engineers is being pushed to do frivolous environmental research in place of apparently more highly valued straight civil engineering. It’s a false dichotomy: What’s needed is not either/or but both. We’re no longer in a time when building decisions can be made without evaluating their impact on the fragile environment. Of course, when levees are built, they should be built right or not at all, but as a society we are now obliged to give proper consideration to alternatives as well. Choosing engineering solutions over ecology is just another way of being penny wise and pound foolish. We can afford both.