Thursday, August 27, 2009

But What Do the Parents Think?

I was heartened to read the headline "New Poll Shows N.O. Voters Like Changes in City's School System" this morning. I was even more pleased to read in the article:
The group says 74 percent of those polled said they hope leaders continue with the changes they've made in the school system.(T-P 8/27/09)
I really do hate to piss in anyone's cornflakes, especially since hope and satisfaction are rare in this town, and the opinion of voters DO reflect some truth, but this was not a survey of parents with children in these schools. So really, this is nice to know, but it's hardly solid evidence of how good our schools are.

That's when I wondered whether a survey of parents of schoolchildren would produce similar numbers. I went to the LA Dept. of Education website which has a plethora of performance data, but it's all test scores, and technology surveys, and every "accountability" measure you could think of -- except parent and student satisfaction surveys. At least not that I could find. Just to be sure, I called the Division of Standards, Assessments, and Accountability in Baton Rouge and asked the nice lady who answered if she knew of any state evaluations of parent and student satisfaction with their schools. She said not that she knew of.

That was by no means a thorough investigation (I do have a day job, people), but enough to indicate to me that this very important piece of information -- what the parents and students experiencing the changes in our schools think of them -- either doesn't exist or is nowhere as easy to find as LEAP scores and graduation rates.

I'm hoping someone tells me that I'm wrong and points me in the right direction.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The First Step to Recovery is Still...

[you guessed it!]
...Admitting You Have a Problem

As expected, I received some pushback from the previous post and would like to respond to the questions and criticism received. Most importantly, I mis-cited the report from which I drew the history of previous hurricane flooding in N.O. That info came from the Independent Levee Investigation Team (not IPET). I greatly appreciate Editilla of New Orleans Ladder for pointing out this huge error! Like the Corps engineers, I am also human and thus fallible.

Let me address the most significant criticisms.

There is no evidence, beyond unverified verbal accounts by Army Corps spokespersons, that local citizens "limited the scope of the first round of levees which failed so catastrophically" during Katrina.
I didn't speak to Army Corps spokespersons. This information, which is the extent of my evidence, was lifted directly from the ILIT report:
In 1960...the Corps plan opted to solve the drainage canal freeboard problem by installing tidal gates and pumps at the drainage canal outfalls along Lake Pontchartrain. This obviated the need for condemning all the homes built along the canal levees. The Corps soon found itself embroiled in a clash of cultures and goals with the levee districts, the S&WB, and the local citizenry, who flatly opposed the Corps' proposal.

...the Corps focus shifted to heightening the drainage canal levees using concrete walls, which was what the opposing groups desired. These walls were to be designed to withstand a Category 3 storm surge with 12 ft tides and 130 mph winds. (ILIT report, pp. 4-22 to 4-23)

We [] stand by our assertion that allegations in a 3-page sworn affidavit by Founder Jon Donley thoroughly validate our suspicions of a deception campaign being waged by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps shouldn't be posing as individuals spouting off deceiving and incorrect information in online comment forums, but individual Corps employees should be able to spout off their personal views via any forum they choose. In my opinion, the way this issue about the comments is playing out makes look like it doesn't know how to handle criticism.

We hope to see both our supporters and critics at Rising Tide IV where we will sponsor the Early Riser Breakfast.

I do support, which is why I care if some of the things they say is questionable. Often, the most helpful criticism comes from those who want to support and stand behind you.

note: comment courtesy of Editilla~]This ILIT study lays a lot of blame in many places, but the cause of 80% of the flooding of New Orleans 8/29/05 is still indisputably the Corps of Engineers failure to get it right the first time --NOT Katrina storm surge. The ILIT study pretty much devastates that misnomer.
Umm, have ya read the ILIT report? The hurricane, of which a defining element is storm surge, is the FIRST in ILIT's list of what caused our levees to fail:

In the end, it is concluded that many things went wrong with the New Orleans flood protection system during Hurricane Katrina, and the resulting catastrophe had its roots in three main causes: (1) a major natural disaster (the Hurricane itself), (2) the poor performance of the flood protection system, due to localized engineering failures, questionable judgments, errors, etc. involved in the detailed design, construction, operation and maintenance of the system, and (3) more global "organizational" and institutional problems associated with the governmental and local organizations responsible for the design, construction, operation, maintenance and funding of the overall flood protection system. (ILIT, p. xix)

There is a reason hurricane storm surges are measured, recorded, studied, and feared: because they matter. If storm surge were not a factor, then levees and floodwalls would not be built according to how much storm surge and wave overtopping they could handle. Just because our floodwalls failed with 7ft as opposed to 14ft of storm surge does not mean surge was not a factor.

I mean, really, where exactly do people think all that fucking water that the levees did not hold back came from?

[by Editilla~] Other perimeters of influence do not factor into the basic successful engineering of those flood walls and levees.
Basic successful engineering includes selection of types of structures as well as placement and maintenance of structures, both of which local government and citizens had some degree of control over:

The three drainage canals should not have been accessible to the storm surge. The USACE had tried for many years to obtain authorization to install floodgates at the north ends of the three drainage canals that could be closed to prevent storm surges from raising the water levels within the canals. That would have been the superior technical solution. Dysfunctional interaction between the local Levee Board (who were responsible for levees and floodwalls, etc.) and the local Water and Sewerage Board (who were responsible for pumping water from the city via the drainage canals) prevented the installation of these gates, however, and as a result many miles of the sides of these three canals had instead to be lined with levees and floodwalls. (ILIT, p. xxiii)

New Orleans officials were the ones who funded and built the outfall drainage canals despite being warned in the 1870's that they would direct storm surge right into the heart of the city, much like MRGO did. Until the 1950s, before the Corps became involved, it was the Orleans Levee Board who opted to raise these outfall canal levees again and again following each of the many overtoppings and breaches (listed in my previous post) that occurred during hurricanes. It was New Orleans officials who allowed homes to be built so close to those drainage canals, and once that occurred, do you really think the Corps faced any chance of constructing the wide, sturdy levees like the ones that have protected us from the Mississippi river since the 1850s? I understand that people don't want to have their homes torn down and forced to move. Hell, I wouldn't, but I also understand that we need to understand how we got to where we are today.

I'm not trying to reopen old wounds or rehash something that's been put to bed, like one person [i.e., Editilla~] insinuated about my motivations for writing my last post. This has been on my mind precisely because of the decisions we as New Orleanians are being asked to make once again and the coverage every Corps public meeting receives in the press. Also, my original post was not just about the Corps and floodwalls, it was about questioning the reluctance of our City Council to adopt higher elevations for rebuilding in a city that has been flooded 38 times --
THIRTY FRICKIN' EIGHT, people!! -- by Lake Pontchartrain. It was also about some people wanting to place pumps in City Park because they'd look too ugly by their lakefront houses, to hell with physical science and gravity and history which keep trying to tell us that that's just not a good idea no matter how you slice it. It was also about the continued lack of leadership in this City willing to face the hard truths and shepherd its citizens toward facing some tough truths when we need to. How can we expect the Corps and the feds to address their faults when we are insulted whenever asked to address our own community's faults?

By reading some of the dissenting comments, one would think I laid 100% of the blame at the foot of New Orleanians. I clearly said the Corps was to blame for the unacceptable design and failure of our flood protection, and I most certainly don't have a reputation of being a Corps sympathizer. What I would like to think I have a reputation for is pointing out facts, even the ugly ones; and the fact (unless the revered engineer and known Corps critic Robert Bea & his colleagues got it wrong in their ILIT report) is that
many local officials and citizens prior to Katrina preferred the very system of outfall canals and floodwalls now in place. This does not mean we're stupid for living here. This does not mean the Corps did an excellent job of overseeing their design, maintenance, and construction because they didn't. It does not mean those walls didn't fail at half their design specifications. They did. It most certainly does not mean that people opting for the floodwalls should have seen the future and fully understood the implications of their decisions at that time. It just means what those words placed in that particular order are supposed to mean: that many people here preferred the Corps to build floodwalls instead of closing or reconfiguring the outfall canals, instead of the tidal gates and pumps at the mouth of the lake, and instead of giving up their homes.

So why even bring all this up? It's not an attempt to retell the Flood story in a manner that benefits the Corps, as one commenter [a.k.a. Editilla~] insinuated. It's an attempt to tell MORE of the story, beginning from the 1800s instead of starting halfway through (or even near the end of) the story at August 29, 2005. Sometimes life gives us the gift of past experience and hindsight, and we'd be doing ourselves and everyone who has to live with our decisions a giant disservice to not use that wisdom when we can. Those who do not understand history, or flat out deny it, are destined to repeat it...or at the very least act surprised when it occurs again.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The First Step to Recovery...

...Is Admitting You Have a Problem.

[I've been planning this one for a while, so set on down, grab a cup of coffee (or the vodka if you prefer to swing that way) 'cuz I gots a lot to say.]

When it comes to flood protection, too many of us haven't admitted this. Everyone in the world knows we have a bit of a drainage & elevation problem, but I'm asking how many of us in the N.O. area have been honest enough to outwardly admit that we have in fact exacerbated and even caused -- Oh yes I did say it -- our own flood protection problems. At the very least we ignore the obvious, even to the point of denial, and you only need to have watched one after-school special to know that people who are in denial are nowhere near to achieving recovery (no matter how blonde and popular you are, nor whether you're prom queen).

Ironically, it's the citizen group working to improve our flood protection system,, that has added a lot of the fuel to this fire, first with what I saw on their FAQ and Factsheet pages and then by their founder's allegations that the Corps has been unfairly attacking her and all citizens by saying that we are partly to blame for the 2005 federal flood.

Well, we are. And it's high time we stop running from that sad, uncomfortable truth. I don't believe we are to blame for the shoddy workmanship done on the levees. However, we are not idle, innocent bystanders in all of this.

Let's start with Fact #1 on the Factsheet: "The flooding of New Orleans and nearby St. Bernard Parish was an engineering disaster, not a natural disaster." Yes, the structures were poorly constructed, but the levee and canal wall failures did not happen on a clear, sunny day. They were overwhelmed by hurricane storm surge -- a.k.a. a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina was a strong Category 3 storm as it passed New Orleans, true. We were led to believe that our flood protection structures should have withstood such a storm (or roughly, a 100 year storm), true. However, thanks to Katrina, we now know that the five-category Saffir-Simpson scale is an inadequate classification system. While New Orleans received Category 2 winds, perhaps stronger gusts, Katrina brought with her storm surge well beyond that even seen during Camille, the strongest Cat 5 we have ever seen in the U.S. with winds approaching 200 miles per hour.

Fact #2 on "Responsibility for the design and construction of the flood protection in metro New Orleans belongs solely to the US Army Corps of Engineers..." Solely? Really? Then why the required public commenting wherein they are pressured to spare volleyball courts at the cost of weakening the better designed plans presented by the Corps? What about when people insisted on putting pumps even further south of the lake (i.e., in City Park) when it is clearly in our best interests to block lake surge from intruding that far into the city?

How are WE at fault? We must shoulder part of the blame because many people here keep failing to acknowledge two key facts of life: 1) we have always been and will continue to be vulnerable to the destruction wrought by hurricanes; and 2) man can never, and I mean NEVER, guarantee that anything he builds can withstand whatever Mother Nature may send our way. Yet, just this summer the news featured coverage of people relying on updated flood maps, which are already outdated by the way, to decide whether or not to raise their homes. Let's review. Many people whose homes flooded had no flood insurance before Katrina not because they couldn't afford it but because based on the presence of a flood protection system federal maps zoned their homes as being outside of a 100 year floodplain (i.e., insurance guy told you you don't need flood insurance). OK, fine, many people didn't really understand the statistics behind 100- and 500-year storms and the variables involved, but you should now. However, many people understood back then that their neighborhoods existed only because the levee system was extended to incorporate that area of the city. even acknowledges this fact:
("...the water table was drastically lowered by the city’s drainage system and some areas settled several feet due to the consolidation of the underlying organic soils. After 1965, the US Army Corps built a system around a much larger geographic footprint that included previous marshland and swamp.")
In the weeks after the storm, I remember pissed off residents blaming "the feds" who told us we were safe behind levees. Yet here we are, going right back to where we started, with the City Council (not the Corps) not approving flood maps because doing so would require people to elevate their homes several feet...Unless they wait a couple years for the levee system to be rebuilt and the next round of flood maps putting them outside 100-year floodplains once again so they can build their houses at or very near ground level.
For some, particularly in neighborhoods such as Lakeview, the maps show their risk has abated and if the city would adopt the FEMA maps, huge savings on flood-insurance premiums would follow. But those residents will have to wait. The City Council didn't want to adopt the maps and force others in areas where flood risk has increased, like the Lower 9th Ward and parts of Gentilly, to elevate now when adequate protection should be in place in a couple of years. (T-P, 6-18-09) FAQ: Haven't N.O. residents known for years that this could happen? "No, because the Corps assured the city’s residents that they were safe from a Standard Project Hurricane (roughly equivalent to a Cat 3 Storm). New Orleans residents did not know that the flood walls could rupture 4 feet below design specs or that the floodwalls were designed to collapse if water briefly overtopped them."

[The initial post incorrectly cited IPET as the reference document from which the following info was drawn. It was actually drawn from the ILIT report. Associated hyperlinks have also been corrected.]

Our collective sin is our repeated failure to learn from the sins of our fathers and from our own disaster ridden history. The Independent Levee Investigation Team (ILIT) issued a report on July 31, 2006, did a very good job of retelling this history as part of a nearly 700-page report on the failure of our flood protection system:

Floods Inundating "Backatown" via Lake Pontchartrain
(the following lifted directly from the ILIT report [except for my commentary in brackets; bold emphases are mine]
Hurricanes strike the Louisiana Coast with a mean frequency of two every three years (Kolb and Saucier, 1982). Since 1759, 172 hurricanes have struck southern Louisiana (Shallat, 2000). Of these, 38 have caused flooding in New Orleans, usually via Lake Pontchartrain. Some of the more notable events have included: 1812, 1831, 1860, 1893, 1915, 1940, 1947, 1965, 1969, and 2005. [ILIT report, pp. 4-9 to 4-11]
  1. "The Great Louisiana Hurricane" of August 9, 1812. It rolled over the barrier islands and drowned Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes and the area around Barataria Bay [pay attention too, Westbankers] under 15 feet of water. The parade ground at Fort St. Phillip was inundated by 8 feet of water and the shoreline along Lake Pontchartrain was similarly inundated, though this was far enough below the French Quarter to spare any flooding of the City.
  2. In June 1821 easterly winds surged off Lake Pontchartrain and pushed up Bayou St. John, flooding fishing villages and spilling into North Rampart Street until the winds abated and allowed the water to drain back into the lake. It was an ominous portent of things to come.
  3. On August 16, 1831 "The Great Barbados Hurricane" careened across the Caribbean, striking the Louisiana coast west of New Orleans. The area south of town was again inundated by storm surge, while a three foot surge entered the city from Lake Pontchartrain.
  4. Southeastern Louisiana suffered through three hurricanes during the summer and fall of 1860. On August 8th a fast moving hurricane swept 20 feet of water into Plaquemines Parish. The third hurricane struck on October 2nd making landfall west of New Orleans. It inundated Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and Barataria, causing a significant storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain which destroyed 20 lakeside settlements, washing out a portion of the New Orleans and Jackson Great Northern Railroad. Surge from this storm overtopped the banks along the Old and New Basin drainage canals and a levee along Bayou St. John gave way, allowing the onrushing water to flood a broad area extending across the back side of New Orleans.
  5. In 1871 three hurricanes caused localized flooding, which proved difficult to drain. Flooding emanating from storm surges on Lake Pontchartrain during these storms overtopped the Hagen Avenue drainage canal between Bayou St. John and New Basin Canal [present day Lafitte Avenue] spilling flood waters into the Mid-City area. City Engineer W. H. Bell warned the city officials about the potential dangers posed by the drainage canals leading to Lake Pontchartrain, because the Mid-City area lay slightly below sea level.
  6. The record hurricane of October 2, 1893 passed south of New Orleans and generated winds of 100 mph and a storm surge of 13 feet, which drowned more than 2,000 people in Jefferson Parish, completely destroying the settlements on the barrier island of Cheniere Caminada. This represented the greatest loss of life ascribable to any natural disaster in the United States up until that time.
  7. In August 1900, a hurricane passed directly over Galveston, TX, demolishing that city and killing between 6,000 and 8,000 people, which remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history. Prior to impacting Galveston, that hurricane tracked westerly parallel to the Gulf Coast about 150 miles south of New Orleans. Its flood surges were noted along the Gulf Coast, including Lake Pontchartrain's south shore (Cline, 1926) [sounds kinda like Rita and Ike, don't it? We're vulnerable even if a storm just passes south of us on the way to Texas! Still hard for me to wrap my mind around this phenomenon.]
  8. Prior to Katrina's landfall in 2005, the most damaging hurricane to impact New Orleans was the Grand Isle Hurricane of September 29, 1915, a Category 4 event which produced winds as great as 140 miles per hour at Grand Isle. It slowed as it made landfall and eventually passed over Audubon Park, seriously damaging structures across New Orleans. Electrical power was knocked out, preventing the City's new pumps from functioning [sound familiar?]. The wave crest height on Lake Pontchartrain rose to 13 ft, easily overtopping 6-foot high shoreline levee, destroying the lakefront villages of Bucktown (at the end of 17th Street Canal), West End, Spanish Fort, and Lakeview (these lakeside settlements were swallowed up by the infilling of the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline in 1928-31). The drainage canals were also overtopped, flooding the city behind Claiborne, leaving Mid-City and Canal Street under several feet of water. This storm overwhelmed the City's defenses so quickly that 275 people were killed, mostly in the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline zone.
  9. On September 19, 1947 an unnamed hurricane made landfall near the Chandeleur Islands [remember those?]
    A storm surge of 9.8ft reached Shell Beach on Lake Borgne. The runways at Moisant Airport were covered by 2 ft of water while Jefferson Parish was flooded to depths of 3+ ft. Sewage from an overwhelmed S&WB treatment plant stagnated in some of the drainage canals, producing sulfuric acid fumes that caused staining of lead-based paint on some of the homes in the Lakeview area, leaving them with unsightly black blotches
    [I've never heard this before]. 51 people drowned and New Orleans suffered more than $100 million in damages. City officials were unable to clear floodwaters through the drainage canals in the Lakeview, Gentilly, and Metairie neighborhoods for nearly two weeks. [hmm, I have this strange feeling of deja vu, like this has happened before]. This was the first significant hurricane to strike New Orleans which generated a large body of reliable storm surge data, which was subsequently used in design of flood protection works by the Corps of Engineers. The New Orleans Times-Picayune prepared a map that showed reported depths and locations of flooding in the 1947 hurricane.

A couple more important nuggets of history which some of us seem hellbent on repeating:

[In the 1870s!] New Orleans City Surveyor W.H. Bell warned of the potential dangers posed by the big outfall drainage canals. He told city officials to place pumping stations on the lakeshore, otherwise “heavy storms would result in water backup within the canals, culminating in overflow into the city.” This prophetic warning was ignored with catastrophic results during Hurricane Katrina. (p. 4-16)

By the time the Corps got involved [between 1955 & 1960], a dense network of single family residences abutted the drainage canals along their entire courses (the canals are 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 miles long). The encroachment of these homes adjacent to the canal embankments circumvented any possibility of using conventional methods to heighten the levees, which is usually accomplished by adding compacted earth on the land-side of the levees (Figure 4.23, which would require the condemnation and removal of hundreds of residences, which would be costly and time-consuming (not to mention unprecedented). (p. 4-22)

As far as I'm concerned, the previous point merits the most reflection. The feds and Corps did not build our homes right alongside outfall drainage canals. Those drained marshland pioneers may not have comprehended fully the implication of building their homes where they did. But now, we do. And we have to really think about what it means, not just to us personally but to the rest of the citizens who will be flooded from a breach of the floodwall in our backyards, when we object to the Corps appropriating 6 feet of our backyards to widen levee foundations or secure them from tree roots and whatnots that compromise the levees. WE are the ones with the power to tell the Corps how much land we are willing to cede to protect this great City, just like WE were the ones who limited the scope of the first round of levees which failed so catastrophically -- under the force of the Category 5 storm surge of a naturally occurring hurricane.

Let the hate mail begin!!