A.C.E: Levee Warning Signs Were Never Reported

Engineers responsible for monitoring the levees that failed following Hurricane Katrina were never told that canal water had been pooling in yards beside a flood wall months before the storm, an Army Corps of Engineers manager said Friday.

Residents living along the 17th Street Canal told The Times-Picayune newspaper in an article published Friday that they had complained to the city Sewerage and Water Board nearly a year ago about water pooling in their yards.

City workers came out and concluded environmental testing was needed to determine if water was seeping through the levee, said Beth LeBlanc, whose home is about 100 yards from where the levee later failed.

But no one, including the Sewerage and Water Board, informed the Corps of Engineers or the Orleans Levee District, said Jerry Colletti, the Corps' operations manager for completed works in the New Orleans District.

"Whether they forgot or let it slip, I don't know," Colletti said Friday. "The management over there knows better that something like that should be reported."

It was not clear if the environmental testing was ever conducted. Calls to the Sewerage and Water Board seeking comment Friday were not returned.

University of California-Berkeley professor Ray Seed, part a team studying the levee failures for the National Science Foundation, said such seepage is common with levees and does not necessarily indicate an imminent failure or even poor levee maintenance.

"At same time, that ordinarily would be checked out," Seed said. "Communication among the many agencies involved with the levees in New Orleans aren't all that good."

Complaints about the management of the levee system have been growing since levee failures during the storm left 80 percent of the city inundated.

Earlier this week, the Business Council of New Orleans demanded Gov. Kathleen Blanco replace political appointees on New Orleans-area levee boards with a single panel of flood-control experts.

"A great city has been devastated, and yet the Orleans Parish Levee Board continues to protect the unqualified and the corrupt," the council wrote to Blanco. It cited a scandal involving a former levee board president who was forced out after giving cleanup contracts to relatives and claiming more than $90,000 in back pay.

Blanco has proposed a new state agency to oversee all levee districts in the state, and the Legislature is considering changes to levee oversight during a special session now under way.

Colletti said Friday that annual inspections by the Corps and the Orleans Levee District might have discovered the pooling water, but those inspections are not easy along the 17th Street Canal, where private yards meet the base of the levee.

"You either have to do those by walking and knocking, door-to-door, or an aerial inspection or drive by, banking on the fact that you're not getting complaints and that there's nothing visible from the vantage point you may get," Colletti said. "That's not optimal by any means."