WASHINGTON – The White House on Monday defended the quality of materials being used to rebuild the levees around New Orleans, as President Bush got assurances from the Army Corps of Engineers that it was on track to restore the system by the start of hurricane season.
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, head of the Army Corps, told Bush in a private briefing that 100 miles of the 169 miles of levees damaged by the Aug. 29 hurricane have been restored. He repeated the briefing later for reporters at the White House.
Strock took issue with findings from two teams of independent experts who said the Corps was taking shortcuts and using substandard materials, leaving large sections of the system substantially weaker than before the hurricane.
"We are using the right kind of materials," Strock said. "There is no question about that."
The findings, first reported Monday in The Washington Post, were made by engineers on a National Science Foundation-funded panel and by a Louisiana team appointed to monitor the rebuilding.
Strock said the Corps had yet to see the findings or information on where the teams took their samples. He suggested the monitors may have been testing the wrong soil. He said the Corps is trucking in clay from Mississippi to rebuild the system because the local soil does not meet quality standards.
Strock acknowledged that the levees will not be able to protect low-lying areas in the event of another Katrina-like storm this year.
"If we were going to have another Katrina-like event, I think I can say with a high level of confidence you wouldn't see the catastrophic flooding that we saw in the first event," Strock said. "You would see overtopping, though, of levees. You would see flooding in low-lying areas."
Strock said the president, who is visiting the Gulf Coast Wednesday, told him he appreciated the Corps' work and that it was meeting the commitments that he made to restore the levees in time for the next hurricane season.
"He expressed confidence that we're doing that," Strock said. "So I think that he's comfortable with where we are."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan also rejected allegations of inferior rebuilding.
"The Corps of Engineers is using modern design and construction methods, which have greatly improved the last four years, which is the time when those levees were originally built," McClellan said.
The White House also defended Bush on Monday against fresh criticism that he was disengaged and uninformed in the run-up to Katrina's landfall.
Last week's reports about Federal Emergency Management Agency briefings, particularly before Katrina hit, prompted fresh criticism by lawmakers who said the government should have been better prepared for the storm that flooded New Orleans and killed more than 1,300 people. A video of an Aug. 28 briefing showed officials warning Bush and others that the storm might overtop levees, put lives at risk in the Superdome and overwhelm rescuers.
McClellan said the criticism of Bush for not asking questions during the video ignores the fact that before the videoconference he had been on the phone with governors in the region and received updates from then-FEMA chief Michael Brown and his own staff. Bush got on the videoconference to boost morale, not collect information, McClellan said, and he left before it ended for a previously scheduled press event at which he made a statement on the hurricane.
"Some have twisted the facts to fit a story line," McClellan said. "He was not there to participate in the full briefing. He was there for that purpose: to lift their spirits."
McClellan also said that referring to Bush's statement four days after the storm that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," ignores the explanations given by the White House and Bush himself about what he meant.
"What the president was referring to was the sense that, after the storm had initially passed, that there was a sense that that worst-case scenario had not happened," McClellan said. "Some have taken it out of context to suggest he was referring to any predictions before the hurricane hit."