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Army Corps: Nothing like N.O. hurricane defenses have been built 'in the history of mankind'

The Orleans pump station under construction on the New Orleans lakefront (John Snell) The Orleans pump station under construction on the New Orleans lakefront (John Snell)
NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State ranked as the world's third-largest suspension bridge in 1940, when four months after it opened, in 40 mph winds, the bridge swayed, twisted and danced until it crashed into Puget Sound.

 In 1928, the St. Francis Dam in California - built on a faulty foundation - collapsed and released 12 billion gallons of water.  The resulting flood killed hundreds of people.

Both incidents still rate as two of history's great engineering failures.

And in 2005, what history should have recorded as Mississippi's storm, forever redefined New Orleans largely because of the critical failures of human beings.

"What happened 10-and-half-years years ago was a man-made failure," said H.J. Bosworth, civil engineer and senior member of Levees.org.

Levees and floodwalls, built in many cases with substandard materials,  failed to perform as advertised. Today, brand new defenses encase metro New Orleans: 350 miles of pumps, floodgates, levees and floodwalls.

At a cost of $14.6 billion, nothing has ever been built to this scale in this short a span of time.

"There are no examples that are similar to this in the history of mankind," said Lt. Col. Austin Appleton, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District.

On the New Orleans lakefront, workers are installing the final pieces of the system, the three permanent pump stations that shut the door to Lake Pontchartrain. Designed to operate only during a tropical event, the pumps will drain the London, Orleans and 17th Street outfall canals.

"The entire building is built to 200 mph, three-second gusts," said Dan Bradley, senior project manager for the pump station construction.

Bradley said the stations will come on line next year, with Orleans in April; London in August and 17th Street in September. Until then, temporary pumps on the Lakefront provide 100-year protection.

"All the pump stations have similar equipment," Bradley said.  "So once the operators are trained on these, they're trained on all of them."

At a combined 24,000 cubic feet per second of pumping capacity, the stations could fill an Olympic-sized pool in three-and-a-half seconds. Bradley said the pump stations are built to be resilient with extra height to take into account the future effects of subsidence and sea-level rise.

With an added 2 feet of height, Bradley said "a major structure like this would not have to be a major structural redesign to elevate that in the future."

After Katrina, the Corps went about rebuilding the system in an entirely different way. The same contractor designing massive projects would build them. Design-build is aimed at offering cost savings, innovation and speed. Bosworth points out it also carries serious legal and financial obligations for the contractor, who must stand behind the work.  

"They take it quite seriously," Bosworth said, "because, certainly, they don't want to go out of business if this thing would fail."

After Katrina, in most cases, no one could be held responsible when a levee was designed poorly or a contractor used substandard materials.

"If this thing would fail, they would know exactly what the name of the contractor is of the consortium that built it," Bosworth said.

Arguably the harshest critic of the Corps, Bosworth said New Orleans is "in very good shape today." While he has concerns about the reliability of the temporary pumps that must do the job through this hurricane season and much of next, he believes weak spots in the new permanent defenses are not in critical areas.

Just don't call this hurricane "protection." The Corps prefers the term "risk reduction system," noting the system is designed to guard against a storm with a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.

"If we have a storm of greater intensity, say a 500-year storm, that may overwhelm parts of the system," Lt. Col. Appleton said.

While New Orleans now enjoys vastly better protection than pre-Katrina, the Corps stresses that residents should heed the advice of local elected officials about future evacuations.

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