NEW ORLEANS – The beleaguered engineers trying to shore up the city's flood protection say they learned a major lesson during a tour of Dutch levees and floodgates: It's unfair to compare projects here to those in the Netherlands, where the government has spent billions of dollars on flood control.
"If we get funded to the level (Dutch engineers) get funded and have the national backing they have, we're going to do some fantastic things," said Al Naomi, a senior project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers. "There's nothing magical about what they do."
Teams of engineers and politicians have visited the Netherlands in hopes of learning how the Dutch created flood defenses strong enough to withstand a storm as large as or larger than Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed New Orleans' flood-control system.
With much of the Netherlands around 20 feet below sea level, water control has been a major priority there for centuries. The country recently completed a 50-year program to build dams, sea walls and surge barriers designed to protect the south of the country against almost any storm.
The $15 billion program was spurred by a 1953 flood that killed 1,800 people. The Netherlands spends about $1.5 billion annually to maintain and improve the system that works constantly to keep the country dry.
Congress last year gave Louisiana a choice: If it wanted federal money for flood-control projects, it had to get rid of its 19th-century levee control system with its patronage and cronyism and replace it with expertise and professionalism.
State lawmakers overhauled the system, but it remains to be seen if it's enough to get Congress to agree to spend billions to prevent another Katrina-like catastrophe. Even if Congress approves the funding, some in Louisiana aren't sure the Corps should handle the job.
"With all due respect to the Corps, we want a lot of technical eyes looking at whatever the plans are," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said.
The Corps initially hypothesized that floodwaters overran the levees that breached. It took weeks after a state-sponsored team studying the failures offered evidence that the levees had broken without being overrun before the Corps corrected itself.
Independent engineers found that the Corps made critical mistakes in assuming that Louisiana's loose, porous soil would be more stable than it was under heavy pressure from rising water.
Ivor van Heerden, a civil engineer at Louisiana State University who leads the team studying the failures, said the Dutch equivalent of the Corps is more aggressive in warning the public about potential flooding.
He and Blanco agree with Naomi, the Corps project manager, that money and political backing for flood control have been insufficient.
"There are people who have studied the Corps and feel like the Corps has been asked to do more with less, and in engineering ... that's about an impossible task and it's a very dangerous thing," Blanco said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said the trip to the Netherlands reinforced to her that low-lying communities can thrive. She said the Dutch were dumbfounded by the idea, briefly floated by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and others, that areas of Louisiana 3 to 5 feet below sea level should be abandoned.
"The levees broke because of the lack of political will at the federal level primarily, some disorganization at the local level and a gross, almost sinful underinvestment in civil works necessary to maintain this country," Landrieu said.
A shift in philosophy appears to be in the works. For the first time, the Corps has been asked not to complete a cost-benefit analysis required for its projects, Naomi said. Instead, it has been directed to include the "consequences of failure" in its economic analysis for future New Orleans flood control projects.
The Corps plans to use a special fabric to "armor" the dry sides of levees that are being repaired so they'll be resistant to erosion if water from a storm surge pours over the top again. It also is building gates that can prevent storm surge from entering canals from Lake Pontchartrain.
Naomi said he would welcome help from the Dutch.
"It's nice seeing that the challenges aren't that much different," he said. "The main difference is the resources that are available, and they are fortunate in that they have a major commitment from their government and the funding to do what they need to do."