THE POLITICS OF FLOOD
Levees Weakened as New Orleans Board, Federal
By Stephen Braun and Ralph Vartabedian
December 25, 2005
NEW ORLEANS — When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and
New Orleans levee officials joined forces in July 1985
to protect the city from a long-feared hurricane, the
two agencies could not agree on how to proceed. It was
the beginning of a dysfunctional partnership that
ushered in two decades of chronic government
Corps engineers wanted to install gates in front of the
city's three main internal canals to protect against
violent storm surges from Lake Pontchartrain. The
Orleans Levee District, the city's flood protection
agency, preferred to build higher flood walls for miles
along the canals. For five years, neither side yielded.
But in October 1990, a deft behind-the-scenes maneuver
by the levee board forced the corps to accept higher
flood walls. As Senate and House negotiators gathered to
craft the Water Resources Development Act of 1990,
Louisiana's congressional delegation quietly inserted a
lobbyist's phrasing ordering the corps to raise the
"It was stealth; legislative trickery," recalled New
Orleans lawyer Bruce Feingerts, who lobbied for the
levee board. "We had to push every button at our
The gambit was a crucial victory over the corps by the
Orleans district, the most powerful and well-financed
among 18 Louisiana boards that supervise more than 340
miles of storm levees across the hurricane-prone
southern half of the state. The corps had to abandon its
floodgate plan and shoulder 70% of the project's costs
while allowing the Orleans board to hire its own
consultants to design the strengthened levees.
But their fractious partnership proved disastrous. While
the corps and the Orleans board settled into an
acrimonious 15-year relationship, spending $95 million
to buttress the city's canal levees, their shared
supervision failed to detect crucial weaknesses inside
the flood walls before Hurricane Katrina struck.
"No one felt the urgency, none of us," said Lambert C.
Boissiere Jr., a former Orleans levee commissioner. "The
corps and our own engineers told us the levees were
strong enough. They were all dead wrong."
Structural inspections were cursory. Maintenance was
minimal. A confusing regulatory patchwork of ownership
over the levees and canals blurred the lines of
authority — all shortcomings cited by independent
engineering teams analyzing the levees' collapse.
Although the corps and federal officials kept a tight
leash on funding, the Orleans board spent money
lavishly, diverting resources to high-stakes investments
such as casinos and marinas. The levee board's unusual
authority to hire its own consultants allowed its
officials to select firms that regularly gave campaign
contributions to politicians with influence over levee
Left unchecked because of repeated failures by the
Louisiana Legislature to reform the levee board system,
critics say, the Orleans district operated its own
"The New Orleans board had the reputation of being one
of the worst — by worst, I mean more political than
professional," said former Louisiana Gov. Charles E.
"Buddy" Roemer III, a Republican whose Orleans board
appointees launched the 1990 power play in Congress.
When Katrina hit in late August, floodwater from Lake
Pontchartrain burst through the walls of the 17th Street
and London Avenue levees, where steel foundations gave
way in porous soil. Storm water also flowed through a
200-foot gap in the Orleans Avenue levee, a section left
unfinished due to Bush administration funding cuts.
Last week, the corps announced plans to seal off the
three broken canals with permanent barriers and relocate
New Orleans' pump houses from inside the city to the
lakeshore — at a cost of $3.1 billion. The corps' move
to abandon the old flood-control system it built with
the Orleans board came as a bitter coda to a 20-year
'Least Cost' Project
Money was the most pressing concern in July 1985,
when Orleans levee officials signed "assurances" — an
official commitment — to join the corps in buttressing
New Orleans' hurricane protection system.
The corps' traditional preference for a "least cost"
project made floodgates a far more attractive option —
at $20 million — than the $60-million estimate for
raising the levees.
"We were caught between the [Reagan] administration
saying keep the cost down, and Congress and New Orleans
officials saying spend more," said Fred H. Bayley III,
then the corps' director of engineering for the Lower
Mississippi Valley Division.
But the corps' proposed "butterfly-valve gate" — a
concrete-and-steel barrier that would open to let out
water and close to seal off storm surges — was untested
in high storm conditions.
The corps' plan also clashed with the city's practice of
using its system of antiquated pump stations — two miles
inside the city — to force floodwater out into the lake
through the canals. Officials with the New Orleans
Sewerage and Water Board who supervised the canals
feared that in a major hurricane, the gates would jam
with debris and canals would back up, submerging the
Corps engineers had been fixated on floodgates since the
1970s, when the agency proposed using towering gates to
block off surges at the far eastern end of the lake.
That plan was the corps' response to Hurricane Betsy, a
storm that hit New Orleans in 1965, swamping the city's
Lower 9th Ward, killing at least 75 people and causing
more than $1 billion in property damage.
Louisiana's congressional delegation, led by Democratic
Sens. Russell Long and J. Bennett Johnston, won
legislative approval for the barrier plan. But by the
early 1980s, the project was shelved, scuttled by a
judge's order, opposition by environmental and business
groups, and bickering levee boards.
The corps, convinced that raising levees was risky,
shifted its plans, proposing to build gates at the
lakeshore. Higher flood walls required deep sheet piles
— heavy-gauge steel foundations — sunk into the soft
coastal soil to brace against water pressure.
To raise the levees properly, corps engineers warned
that houses along the 17th Street and London Avenue
levees might have to be razed. But the corps refused to
absorb the costs, and the levee board shied from taking
on neighborhood groups — a pivotal early error.
Eager to show off their prototype, corps engineers
herded city officials into the Army's cavernous
Hydraulics Lab in Vicksburg, Miss. The hinged doors
opened and closed easily. But city sewerage officials
peppered the engineers with doubting questions.
Indeed, according to a November 1987 corps report, the
"original design did not perform as intended." Only when
corps engineers altered the model, "the gate design
Despite the skepticism, corps officials moved firmly to
clear a path for the floodgate plan. The corps ruled
that it would not pay for raising the levees because the
city's canals were used for local drainage, not
navigation — beyond the scope of the corps' authority
over river and waterway projects.
The decision forced Orleans levee officials to gamble.
Although the corps refused to pay for raising the
levees, the Lake Pontchartrain, La., and Vicinity
High-Level Plan was still in its planning stages. Under
the drawn-out design process, levee officials still had
the ability to research their own alternative — at the
They aimed to keep the levee-raising option alive by
hiring their own design consultants, then using
political leverage to win their levee-raising plan
From the Orleans levee office on Stars and Stripes
Boulevard to the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge,
Louisiana's political veterans knew the unstated rules
of the levee-building game.
There were scores of qualified civil engineers in New
Orleans, all angling to score lucrative public
contracts. Many firms boasted former corps engineers who
knew how the corps worked and had friends still in the
"The corps had these relationships with the levee
boards," Roemer recalled acidly. "In their
conversations, the levee board would ask the corps:
'What do we need to do to have safety and economic
development?' And the corps would give unofficial
answers. Then the levee board would hire a consulting
engineer and go to the window the corps had opened. It
Normally, the corps used its own contractors to design
and build flood-control projects. But with the corps'
approval, levee boards could hire consultants as a way
to pay their 30% local share of a project's cost. In
hindsight, said the corps' commander, Lt. Gen. Carl A.
Strock, the decision to let the Orleans board hire its
own contractors was "an unusual practice for us."
Some corps veterans worried about the intrusion of local
politics and budget complications. "Generally, when
there were more layers involved, it got more difficult,"
The political lines stretched to Louisiana's governors,
who chose the majority of commissioners on local levee
boards. In 1985, the power in Baton Rouge was Roemer's
predecessor, Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards, who had
installed New Orleans lawyer Emile Schneider as levee
Schneider moved quickly. The board issued $50 million in
bonds, then began hiring private engineers. The
consultants were chosen on their qualifications. But
politics and hiring sometimes mixed, said former
All three engineering consultants who were selected by
the Orleans board to design the levees contributed to
the political campaigns of officials with sway over the
Burk-Kleinpeter Inc., the engineering firm that designed
the raised London Avenue flood wall, gave $5,000 to
Edwards in 1991 before he won the 1992 governor's race.
Walter Baudier also donated during the period that his
firm, Design Engineering Inc., planned the Orleans
Avenue levee. Baudier gave $2,200 to Roemer in 1987 and
$3,000 to Edwards in 1991.
"Everybody gave to everybody," Baudier said. "That
neutralized any advantage."
Baudier's firm was also awarded a separate contract with
the Orleans district, coordinating other levee board
projects. Louisiana's legislative analyst criticized the
arrangement in 1992, warning of potential conflicts
between the firm's dual roles. Baudier insists his firm
dealt only with financing and did not "review other
Levee board contractors also frequently gave campaign
money to Francis C. Heitmeier, a powerful state
legislator from New Orleans who has long wielded
influence over Orleans levee district affairs.
Among Heitmeier's donors from 1996 through 2002 were
Baudier ($5,000), Burk-Kleinpeter ($10,000), and
Modjeski and Masters Inc., an engineering firm that
designed the 17th Street levee ($750). Officials with
Burk-Kleinpeter and Modjeski and Masters did not return
calls seeking comment.
For years, former Orleans levee officials say, Heitmeier,
who headed the state Senate's public works committee and
now its Finance Committee, was influential in levee
board decisions on hiring, policy and contracts. Roemer
was stymied by Heitmeier when he tried to reform the
levee board system and wrest contracts away from local
authorities. His "biggest battles," Roemer said, were
Just last month, Heitmeier again played obstructionist,
helping to snuff out a post-Katrina attempt by reformers
to create a unified state levee board. Critics howled.
"They can say what they want," he said.
Questions About Depth
By 1990, faced with spiraling costs for its gates at
the 17th Street canal, the corps agreed to pay for
raised levees there. But the corps still insisted on
gates at Orleans and London avenues.
Even before the corps made its concession, the board had
acted on its own, hiring a construction firm to drive
sheet piles at 17th Street.
The Orleans board's impatience with the corps was shared
by neighboring levee agencies. In recent years,
Plaquemines Levee District President Benny Rousselle
twice ordered crews to raise levees along a local
highway despite formal corps orders to desist. And
earlier this year, the East Jefferson Levee District
bolstered its side of the 17th Street levee by a foot
and a half without the corps' approval.
"When you deal with the corps, it takes years of
studies," Rousselle said.
Corps engineers were openly peeved in 1990 when they
learned about the Orleans board's decision. The move
posed "an undesirable situation for this office and the
corps," Bayley wrote to the corps' district commander.
Bayley also warned that work crews were not driving the
steel foundations deep enough. It was the first alarm
about shallow sheet piles under the levee.
Despite the corps' recent insistence that 17th Street's
foundations were properly designed at 17 feet below sea
level, a National Science Foundation team of engineering
experts has described the pile depths as inadequate.
By autumn of 1990, the Orleans board had also quietly
hired Bruce Feingerts, a former aide to Russell Long, to
lobby in Washington for levee expansion. Feingerts had
discovered that the levees of Orleans and London avenues
might win federal funding if he could persuade Congress
to expand the coverage of the post-Betsy hurricane plan
passed in 1965. Sens. Johnston and John B. Breaux agreed
to help, Feingerts said, as did most of the state
When Senate and House versions of the 1990 Water
Resources bill neared passage in October, Feingerts went
Johnston recalled that former Louisiana Rep. Jimmy Hayes
was the "point man" as a House manager for conference
Now a Washington lobbyist, Hayes did not respond to
interview requests. But a former aide, Rhod Shaw, said
he often aided New Orleans projects and "would have been
carrying whatever the delegation wanted."
The military engineers were "asleep at the wheel,"
Feingerts said. "If they had seen it coming, they would
have blown a gasket." The final bill passed with his
language intact: "The conferees direct the corps to
treat the outfall canals as part of the overall
As new levee construction projects geared up at Orleans
and London avenues, work crews at the 17th Street canal
were struggling with construction obstacles. Unable to
operate from the land side of the canal because property
lines backed tightly up against the levee, construction
crews had to maneuver by barge up the canal with a
300-foot crane to drive steel piles and raise the
Lakeview resident Bud Thaller stormed outside one day
when his house began to shake violently. A levee crew
driving foundations at 17th Street with a vibrating
hammer had just struck a sandbar. The foreman shrugged
when Thaller approached.
"He told me they were having a hard time getting the
piles in," Thaller recalled.
Boh Brothers, a Louisiana construction firm, was the
first of three companies to drive sheet piles under the
levee walls. They were joined by concrete specialists,
some working for the Orleans board, others hired by the
corps and the sewerage board. A parade of inspectors and
engineers also crowded over the site, so many that "it
could get confusing," recalled Boh Vice President Dale
Biggers, then a crew foreman.
The corps was always the final authority — even
overseeing the number of hammer blows used to drive in
the sheet piles. But on any given day, crews also had to
coordinate with state and city officials and inspectors
for Modjeski and Masters, the levee board's design
consultant. The question of who performed the
inspections is crucial because engineering experts have
had difficulty learning how on-site decisions were made.
"No one was in charge," said Raymond Seed, a UC Berkeley
engineering professor leading a National Science
Foundation inquiry. Seed's team has heard allegations
that piles were deliberately shortchanged. The Justice
Department is investigating.
Structural engineer Herbert J. Roussel Jr., who
testified for a construction firm that sued the corps
during one dispute, recalled Army engineers as
dismissive: "The corps had an attitude problem. It was:
'We're the Army Corps of Engineers. We know what we're
doing and you don't.' "
Levee board officials complained about excessive corps
delays. "They were slow. We'd come up with a design, and
the corps would always send them back," Boissiere said.
Army engineers raised their own complaints. Baudier's
firm was removed as Orleans Avenue designer in 1992,
accused by the corps of missing deadlines.
As sections of the flood walls were finished piece by
piece through the mid-1990s, the levee board's emphasis
turned to the mundane chores of grass-cutting and
maintenance. That left ample time for board business
that had little to do with flood protection.
When lawyer Robert Harvey was installed as the
Orleans district's president in 1992, the levee board
was a recreation powerhouse. A year after Mississippi
River floods swamped New Orleans in 1927, Louisiana
political legend Huey Long had prodded the state
Legislature to allow the Orleans board to expand its
influence into parks, beaches and other "places of
By the late 1980s, the board operated an airport, two
marinas and lakeshore rental properties, but the agency
was hemorrhaging money. Leases went unfilled at the
airport, and its South Shore Marina had too many vacant
Instead of scaling back, Harvey accelerated the board's
outside interests. The tough-talking lawyer won his post
after contributing $5,000 to the 1991 campaign of Gov.
Edwards, an old friend.
"It's a plum job," Harvey recalled. "Your connection
with the governor is close. You have 300 employees, lots
When Edwards pushed for state gambling — a position that
led to his federal corruption conviction in 2001 —
Harvey wooed the Bally's gambling empire to locate a
casino boat at a dock owned by the levee board.
The boat brought in millions in gambling taxes, but
other Harvey projects fell flat. A flirtation with film
studios went nowhere. A series of probes by the state
auditor found cases of financial mismanagement,
conflicts of interest and risky investments. At one
point, six attorneys were working for the board without
formal contracts. And Harvey was accused by the New
Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission of padding the
levee board payroll with old friends. The controversies
took their toll. Harvey resigned in 1995, followed by an
FBI probe of his levee board tenure. "They didn't find
anything," Harvey said.
His successor, James P. Huey, waded into his own
controversies. Huey's board hired his wife's first
cousin, George Carmouche, as a lobbyist in Baton Rouge.
After Katrina struck, the board sublet a Baton Rouge
office from Carmouche. And Huey pocketed nearly $100,000
in back pay, failing to first obtain permission from
state lawyers. He returned the money after resigning
Huey, who did not respond to interview requests, is
under investigation by state and federal authorities.
At the same time, the newly raised flood walls received
Harvey recalls staring jealously at East Jefferson Levee
District's well-trimmed border of the 17th Street canal,
then at untamed foliage and trees massed along the
Orleans levee wall. "I'd look at the Orleans side and
get depressed," he said.
Neither the corps nor the Orleans board had a rigorous
program for scanning for structural defects. Instead,
the two agencies joined twice a year for five-hour-long
inspection tours. A caravan of officials would make
random stops along the floodwalls. Sometimes corps
officials issued citations. Then they would head out for
"That was always on the agenda," said former
Orleans commissioner Peggy Wilson.
On one tour, Wilson was joined by only one other levee
board official. When they stopped briefly at the levees,
corps officials seemed in a rush. "I kept asking them
what I was supposed to look for, puddles of water?" she
said. "They said, 'Oh, don't worry.' "
The agencies relied largely on maintenance crews and
neighbors to flag levee problems. "If something
structural came up, we'd tell the corps," said retired
Orleans levee board crewman Ed Robbins.
But at 17th Street, corps engineers were a rare sight,
recalled Eric Moskau, a commercial real estate agent who
has lived near the flood wall since 2001.
"I'd just see them driving out near the walls," Moskau
said. "I always wondered exactly what they did out
When Katrina's swells blew out huge chunks of 17th
Street's cement wall on the morning of Aug. 30, Harvey
was prepared for disaster.
Years of interagency spats with the corps and his own
engineers had left him a skeptic. He bought an
inflatable rubber boat and stored it in the attic of his
house near the 17th Street levee.
When floodwaters rose, Harvey dragged down his boat and
began rescuing neighbors. "Nobody wanted to go into a
starvation mode and pay for real protection in the halls
of Congress," he said afterward.
Since 2001, the Bush administration had repeatedly
turned down requests from the levee board and the
Louisiana delegation for more flood protection.
When Katrina struck, Orleans Avenue's levee walls held
firm. But when Walter Baudier, the levee's original
designer, drove out with another engineer to the canal
weeks later, he was stunned to find a 200-foot gap
between the levee wall and the pump station. The wall
was left unfinished because of the government's refusal
to fund the project, according to the corps and levee
officials. The gap allowed floodwater to flow freely
into the city.
Near the breach at 17th Street, an 18-foot section of
levee wall ended up in Moskau's living room. Displaced
to Idaho, Moskau returned weeks later to survey the
damage. He hiked over hardened mud, gaping at the
two-block-long rupture. Crowds of red-shirted corps
engineers swarmed nearby, directing repairs. There were
more engineers, he realized, than he had seen in the
four years he had lived near the levee.
"The government was just like everybody who lived near
the levee," Moskau said later. "They took those walls