Posts tagged ‘Levees’

Ready For Gustav, But Ready For Another Katrina?

By Matt Barcus
President, Precision Executive Search
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC, home of

In light of the recent hurricane that blasted through the Gulf Coast this past holiday weekend I would be remiss in doing my job if I did not comment on it as it specifically relates to the civil engineering industry.   Three years ago Hurricane Katrina came through and absolutely devastated the Gulf Coast, New Orleans in particular.  Not only was the government response (Federal, State & Local) a horrible failure, but it brought light upon the incomplete and failing levee system in that region.  Earlier this year there was the tremendous flooding that took place in the Midwest, which really brought to the surface yet another instance of our failing infrastructure.  Not only are our roads and bridges no longer meeting the needs of the population, but on top  of that, and if it did not become evident following Katrina, it certainly became evident this spring, our levee system is is not capable of handling the potential devastating effects that mother nature can unleash.  If you did not read our earlier newsletter or blog entry contributed by Adam Pitluk discussing this make sure you take a look, it is an interesting read.

This time around the City of New Orleans, the State of Louisianna, and FEMA seemed to have their act together as the coordination between the agencies and the level of preparedness was clearly the result of the Katrina debacle.  After reading reports and watching the news coverage though there is still a long way to go in regards to the levee systems, at least down there in New Orleans, but progress is being made…slowly but surely.  At the mouth of the Industrial Canal is where the biggest failure in the levee system exists and the Corps of Engineer hopes to have this $700 Million project completed by 2011.  There was also another levee on the West Bank that is of major concern to the Corps of Engineers, as it  is suspect at best, though it was able to withstand what Gustav had to offer…this time.  Ownership of levees vary from Parrish to Parrish and the allocation of funds is a political process.  I’m no politician, but this should be a pretty black and white issue.  Protect your citizens and rebuild the city; this should be the top priority, and  building and improving the current levee system needs to be the number one priority in this process.   Gustav was no Katrina, and it certainly gave that Gulf Coast region a nice test, both on the levee system and the level of preparedness.  The preparedness that we witnessed for Gustave should be commended and can be matched or exceeded with postive results when future hurricanes threaten, but will the current levee system in place be able to withstand another Katrina between now and 2011?


September 4, 2008 at 1:11 am Leave a comment

Trouble In The Big Muddy

Lessons should have been learned after 1000 levees failed in 1993. They weren’t.

Our July Newsletter featured the following article by Adam Pitluk which he wrote exclusively for, we feel it is a worthy topic of discussion for the civil engineering community so we thought it would be appropriate to publish it on our blog as well.  Enjoy.

By Adam Pitluk, Author & Journalist

TIME magazine contributor Adam Pitluk is the author of “Damned To Eternity” and “Standing Eight.” You can read his blogs “When the Levees Break” on CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s Blog Site,  watch his MSNBC interview on the Inherent Flaws of the Midwestern Levees on his website and see him on ABC’s 20/20 in July.  The press is taking note of Adams’s May 2008 prediction of the now watched levee failures of the Midwest.  He’s written for a host of national publications, including AIR & SPACE and POPULAR MECHANICS. Adam has a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri, and a master of science from Columbia University. You can read his flood predictions for this season on his website,

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with maintaining levees up and down the Mississippi River, as well as other major waterways across the country. Indeed, the Corps has historically built earthen and cement dams to shore up rivers around big cities like St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, but a misconception is that the Corps single-handedly built the American levee system.

In fact, local interests in the late 1800s and early 1900s originally constructed most levees along the Mississippi River. Initially, farmers teamed up and hauled wheelbarrows of clay and compacted sand along the banks of the river to secure their land and crops from an otherwise surging offshoot. Over time, the Corps has made minor improvements on these levees, but they have never dug up the original, tenuous foundations. In this region of the country, the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps was the overseeing body for dam improvements. But they weren’t always the first to know of trouble spots. For that, they relied on the local overseers.

As a result, levees like the one in West Quincy, Missouri, which broke during the Great Floods of 1993 and which is threatening to break right now, have not been properly updated to coincide with the creation of the Mississippi River’s lock and dam system of canals.

The West Quincy levee was originally 17 feet tall at the turn of the 20th century, and it remained that way through 1917, when the Fabius River Drainage District (the overseers of that levee) was formed. In 1936, Congress passed the Flood Control Act, which put levees under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers: They could effectively be called upon to help make improvements in some of the more rural areas of American ecosystems. Between 1960 and 1963, the Fabius district, along with the Army Corps of Engineers and $1.61 million of federal money, commissioned hydraulic pumps to siphon sand from the river and deposit it alongside the West Quincy levee. The dam was thus built up.

By July 1993, it stood approximately 24 feet high, and that 24 feet of earthen clay and sand was all that separated the Mississippi River from more than 14,000 acres of farmland in the Fabius River Drainage District. During the floods of 1973, the Mississippi crested at 26 feet and overtopped the levee, which resulted in the destruction of thousands of acres of farmland and some businesses, like the Knapheide Manufacturing Company.

Earlier in July 1993, Norman Haerr, the commissioner of the Fabius district, was informed by the Corps that this time around, the Mississippi River might rise all the way up to 30 feet of water. The Fabius district was not necessarily up the creek: They could build their levee up to 30 feet, but in so doing, they’d neglect a free board. The Corps highly recommends in their maintenance handbook that levees have a two-foot buffer zone, or free board, between the top of the river and the top of a levee. This safety zone allows a little leverage if the river rises higher than originally calculated, and it also contributes to the structural integrity of the dike. So Haerr and fellow farmer Bob Hoffmeister called in the bulldozers.

A fleet of bulldozers maneuvered to the back of the levee—the side furthest from the river—and actually pushed sand from the base of the levee up the side and toward the top. It worked. The more the bulldozers pushed, the more the levee grew from the ground. Just as the 30-foot target was being met, the Corps came back to Haerr and gave him the one piece of news he absolutely dreaded. They said that the rains up north in Iowa were heavier and more virulent than once expected. As such, Haerr and company could expect 32.5 feet of water.

Haerr received the news with suppressed panic. He wanted to ask the engineer if this was some kind of joke, but the messenger’s face was expressionless—as expressionless as the shocked face that looked back. There was nothing Haerr could do except continue to bulldoze the levee even higher.

The machines pushed and pushed, and an industrial black tarp was thrown over the sheer-faced gigantic mound to keep the sand from eroding. In the areas that didn’t have enough sand at the top, Haerr had volunteers stack sandbags.

Haerr’s strained eyes and clinched fists eased a bit come the morning of July 13, when the river seemed to be holding steady at 29 feet while the levee stood just over 30 feet in the air. The bulldozers continued to push. It is because of the thinning of the levee walls—and not because of sabotage—that the West Quincy levee failed on July 16, 1993.

Fast forward to June 2008: The Fabius River Drainage District started bulldozing their levees again. If this levee fails in 2008, you know who’s to blame.

July 2, 2008 at 1:22 pm 4 comments

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