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Thursday, September 08, 2005
Breach in Levees Not Anticipated--Multiple Updates!

(Welcome fellow Ankle-Biting Pundits, Conservative Grapevine, Michelle Malkin, Sister Toljah, Abracadabrah, NewsBusters and Chip Mathis readers!)

The idiot chorus on the Left has been hammering this statement by President Bush:

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breaching of the levees."

Indeed, Eleanor Clift recently claimed it would be a crippling statement by President Bush.

Bush’s comment that nobody thought the levees in New Orleans would break is false, and he will regret those words just as Condoleezza Rice did her comment that nobody could imagine a plane flying into a building like a missile. Local authorities and the Corps of Engineers had war-gamed hurricane scenarios and issued repeated warnings about the vulnerability of the levees.

Here's one of the pieces of "evidence" that they've seized on:

Mayfield said the strength of the storm and the potential disaster it could bring were made clear during the briefings and in formal advisories, which warned of a storm surge capable of overtopping levees in New Orleans and winds strong enough to blow out windows of high-rise buildings. He said the briefings included information on expected wind speed, storm surge, rainfall and the potential for tornadoes to accompany the storm as it came ashore.

(boldface added)

But of course, "overtopping" the levees and "breaching" the levees are not the same thing. If the levee had just overtopped, then the flooding would have ceased once the storm subsided.

The simulations much mentioned? RiverRat points us to "Hurricane Pam", an exercise that imagined a disaster in New Orleans. Once again:

Hurricane Pam Exercise Concludes

Release Date: July 23, 2004
Release number: R6-04-093
Printer friendly version icon

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Hurricane Pam brought sustained winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain in parts of southeast Louisiana and storm surge that topped levees in the New Orleans area. More than one million residents evacuated and Hurricane Pam destroyed 500,000-600,000 buildings. Emergency officials from 50 parish, state, federal and volunteer organizations faced this scenario during a five-day exercise held this week at the State Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge.

(boldface added)

Update I: Nightline just had Ted Koppel interviewing some expert (I didn't catch his name) who obviously was not overimpressed with FEMA's performance. The guy said exactly what President Bush said and I said, that nobody anticipated a break in the levees; that they anticipated overtopping.

Update II: As to why it breached, here's an article from the Times-Picayune speculating that it was a barge, with some fairly strong evidence.

A loose barge may have caused a large breach in the east side of the Industrial Canal floodwall that accelerated Hurricane Katrina's rising floodwaters in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, Army Corps of Engineers project manager Al Naomi said Monday.

Naomi said the barge was found on the land side of the floodwall, leading corps officials to believe it could have crashed through the wall and sent a huge amount of water - which was already pouring over the top of the wall - into the neighborhoods immediately downriver.

"We have some pictures that show this very large barge inside the protected area. It had to go through the breach," Naomi said. "The opening is a little bit wider than the barge itself. One would think it's the barge that did it."

(Later note: This article says that the breach caused by the barge was not the breach of the 17th Street levee, but a separate breach of the Industrial Canal.)

Let me just say that this is one of the things that is really starting to bore me about the Left. Even when it appears at first blush that they really have something, you can almost guarantee it's going to turn out to be BS if you look into it--from Rathergate to the mythical 98.55% turnout in Miami County.

You can see that the Left and the media's attempt to nail Bush as the culprit in the aftermath of the tragedy in New Orleans is going badly. CNN was in full backpedal mode at least for the brief part of the evening that I checked them out; they highlighted the part about the Red Cross being denied entry to the city by the State of Louisiana, and even had Anderson Cooper emphasizing that people died because of that decision. To reassure the faithful, they mentioned that there was plenty of blame to go around, but of course the message they were forced to admit was that the blame for the suffering that Geraldo and Cooper and Shep spend days wailing about belonged to Blanco.

I'm going to add to this post as I look back at some of the other citations the Left is using to bolster their argument that everybody knew about the possibility of a breach in the levees.

Update III: This USA Today article gets cited. Part of it repeats my case:

The Army Corps of Engineers, which built most of the flood-protection levees in the region, pulled its personnel to a safe distance, expecting rising water from the storm would top the levees.

But the article also claims:

In fact, FEMA had run a mock disaster exercise a year ago in which the levees were breached by a fictitious "Hurricane Pam."

This does not appear to be true; as noted above:

Hurricane Pam brought sustained winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain in parts of southeast Louisiana and storm surge that topped levees in the New Orleans area.

Note particularly the word "topped". The one person I have seen who predicted a real failure of the levees themselves was the mayor, who said they might "topple". It's arguable at least that he misspoke.

This part of that article is certainly relevant:

For years, engineers had warned that the levees were weak, but they hadn't been shored up because of funding shortfalls and disputes over their location and environmental impact.

Yep, disputes over their environmental impact, with folks like Robert Kennedy, Jr., on the side of not building them. The word "weak" of course is suggestive, but it's aways from being dispositive.

Update IV: Russert brought up this citation in an interview with Secretary Chertoff:

In 2002, The Times-Picayune did story after story... New Orleans has hurricane levees that create a bowl with the bottom dipping lower than the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain. ...the levees would trap any water that gets inside-- by breach, overtopping or torrential downpour--catastrophic storm. ...

Okay, so we trackback to the T-P in 2002.. and find the quote:

Like coastal Bangladesh, where typhoons killed 100,000 and 300,000 villagers, respectively, in two horrific storms in 1970 and 1991, the New Orleans area lies in a low, flat coastal area. Unlike Bangladesh, New Orleans has hurricane levees that create a bowl with the bottom dipping lower than the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain. Though providing protection from weaker storms, the levees also would trap any water that gets inside -- by breach, overtopping or torrential downpour -- in a catastrophic storm.

So here's someone who used the word breach. Unfortunately, that is the only relevant mention in the article; there is no discussion of the relative likelihoods of the two scenarios in which New Orleans is flooded by the effective failure of the levees (breach or overtopping). The only other place the word "breach" appears is certainly interesting:

The most likely alternative [to pumping out the water] is simply blowing holes in the levees or widening existing breaches. Breaches in the levee totaling a half mile would allow the water to drain in one day, Combe said. With a more modest effort, totaling 100 feet of openings, draining would take four weeks. If they do dynamite the levees, officials must also weigh the risk of another hurricane hitting in the short term against the urgency of getting the water out.

Existing breaches? Note that here breaches are seen as a solution, not a problem.

By contrast, the overtopping possibility is highlighted at the very beginning:

The debris, largely the remains of about 70 camps smashed by the waves of a storm surge more than 7 feet above sea level, showed that Georges, a Category 2 storm that only grazed New Orleans, had pushed waves to within a foot of the top of the levees. A stronger storm on a slightly different course -- such as the path Georges was on just 16 hours before landfall -- could have realized emergency officials' worst-case scenario: hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water pouring over the levees into an area averaging 5 feet below sea level with no natural means of drainage.

(boldface added)

So the perceived worst-case scenario (overtopping) had been averted in the case of Katrina.

Jay Lake pointed me to a 2001 Scientific American article; I'll see if I can get hold of a copy.

Update V: The Scientific American article appears in the October 2001 issue (not apparently available on-line; I went to the library and read it on--gasp!--microfiche) and is entitled prophetically: Drowning New Orleans. It appears from page 76-85 and paints a picture of potential disaster that fortunately was not quite met by Katrina:

Scientists at Louisiana State University (L.S.U.), who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die.

However, it does not base this estimate on the levees breaking, but a storm surge coming up from south of New Orleans:

The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing... Each loss gives the storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities.

(boldface added)

Okay, maybe a map will help:

The delta is the area South, Southeast and East of New Orleans. However, where the actual flooding came from was from the North, from Lake Ponchartrain.

The article makes no mention of the levees breaking, or breaching. It does mention the levees but only to complain that they have added to the problems facing New Orleans:

The Mississippi River built the delta plain that forms southeastern Louisiana over centuries by depositing vast quantities of sediment every year during spring floods....Since 1879, however, the Corps of Engineers, at Congress's behest, has progressively lined the river with levees to prevent floods... As a result, the plain just subsides below the encroaching ocean. As the wetlands vanish, so does New Orlean's protection from the sea. A hurricane's storm surge can reach 20 feet, but every four miles of marsh can absorb enough water to knock it down by one foot.

Update VI: Henry Waxman gets into the act (Word Document). But like everybody else, he seems to be ignoring the distinction between "overtopping" and "breaching":

“Hurricane surge would block highways and trap 300,000 to 350,000 persons in flooded areas. Storm surge of over 18 feet would overflow flood-protection levees on the Lake Pontchartrain side of New Orleans. Storm surge combined with heavy rain could leave much of New Orleans under 14 to 17 feet of water. More than 200 square miles of urban areas would be flooded.”

(boldface added)

Breaching is mentioned here, but again as a potential solution to the flooding of New Orleans:

“It could take weeks to ‘de-water’ (drain) New Orleans: Inundated pumping stations and damaged pump motors would be inoperable. Flood-protection levees would prevent drainage of floodwater. Breaching the levees would be a complicated and politically sensitive problem: The Corps of Engineers may have to use barges or helicopters to haul earthmoving equipment to open several hundred feet of levee.”

Update VII: More at the Chip Mathis Experience.

Update VIII: EasyLiving points out in the comments that several sources have reported that the 17th Street levee had recently had repairs completed on it. I haven't yet seen a source for this; if you find one, post in the comments or on your blog and send a trackback. I should get some decent traffic off this post based on the linkage I've already gotten, so try to get some for your blog!

Update IX: Reliapundit points us (in the comments) to this briefing by the general in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Now, could this have been avoided? The area where the levee leaks -- where the levee breaks occurred was at its final design configuration. So that was as good as it was going to get. And what does that mean? Actually we knew that it would protect from a Category 3 hurricane. In fact, it has been through a number of Category 3 hurricanes. The intensity of this storm simply exceeded the design capacity of this levee. And those two points-- and others were over top, but those are the two main points of trouble. But that is the basic problem here, is that this storm exceeded the design capacity.

Conclusion: The evidence used by the media and the Left to convince us that the "breach" in the levees was anticipated boils down to a single use of that word in a 2002 New Orleans Times-Picayune article.

Note that I am not saying that an overtopping situation from a Category 5 storm surge could not have been worse, just that in this particular instance it had not been. Remember, everybody thought by late afternoon-early evening on Monday that New Orleans had been spared the worst of Katrina.

Yet Another Update: Commenter Al shows the way to this NY Times story over a week ago that seems to settle the matter:

Local, state and federal officials, for example, have cooperated on disaster planning. In 2000, they studied the impact of a fictional "Hurricane Zebra"; last year they drilled with "Hurricane Pam."

Neither exercise expected the levees to fail. In an interview Thursday on "Good Morning America," President Bush said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." He added, "Now we're having to deal with it, and will."

(boldface added)

Army Corps personnel, in charge of maintaining the levees in New Orleans, started to secure the locks, floodgates and other equipment, said Greg Breerwood, deputy district engineer for project management at the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We knew if it was going to be a Category 5, some levees and some flood walls would be overtopped," he said. "We never did think they would actually be breached." The uncertainty of the storm's course affected Pentagon planning.

Llama School points to another passage in the 2002 T-P article:

"Another scenario is that some part of the levee would fail," Suhayda said. "It's not something that's expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider...."

I should have included that quote, but of course, "It's not something that's expected."

Yet another update: We The Free notices another example of the discussion of "overtopping" but not "breaching" in a Popular Science article. Also note this discussion by the NY Times's Public Editor I covered over at Lifelike:

But neither the news article nor the editorial commentary prepared readers for the possibility of breaches in the levees or canal walls.


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