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Saturday, October 1, 2005

Contract Dispute Might Explain Levee Collapse . . .

In today’s N.Y. Times, Jon Schwartz reports that “[a]n obscure contract dispute from the 1990's that describes questionable building practices and unstable soil at a crucial New Orleans levee may help explain why the walls that were supposed to protect the city from hurricanes collapsed under the assault of Hurricane Katrina.” To read the article go here (free subscription required).

The article reports:

The Army Corps of Engineers hired Pittman Construction for $2.6 million in 1994 to build a reinforced concrete cap with flood-wall segments called monoliths atop the existing earthen levee. But the government found that the company's work was not acceptable in several areas and that the monoliths had shifted.

The company responded that the problem was not the quality of its work but the "lack of structural integrity" of the steel sheets that are rammed through the center line of the levee, and "the relative weakness of the soils," which made it extremely difficult to build a stable structure. The company asked for $810,000 to correct the problem.

That request was denied in 1998 by Reba Page, an administrative law judge for the corps, who determined that Pittman Construction had brought on many of its own problems by not coming up with a successful way to brace the wooden forms that concrete is poured into. A contractor working on a nearby canal project, the judge noted, was able to deal with similar soil issues "without the need for extraordinary construction means, delay or expense."

Of course, without more information, we cannot assume a connection between the construction problems arising from the 1998 contract dispute and the recent levee failures. Hassan Mashriqui, a professor from the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University, reminded that the documents don't "tell you what happened after the motion was denied.” The article is certain to state that, based solely on the legal documents, it is not clear “whether the wall was ultimately repaired to the satisfaction of the corps, and whether the flawed sections of the levee were the same ones that failed in the storm.” 

Robort Bea, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, saw both sides of the story.  Professor Bea said "[w]here there's smoke, there's fire - usually," but he added: "Documents don't always tell the whole truth. You have to keep on probing."

[Meredith R. Miller]

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