Corps admits water level gauges failed during Isaac
New Orleans, La. -- As a Category 1, Hurricane Isaac beat up on the city for longer than many people expected. For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Isaac provided a limited test of the multi-billion dollar investment in flood protection since Hurricane Katrina flooded the city seven years ago.
"Isaac gave us I think more of a workout than we thought initially, and we saw some significant surge," said Ray Newman, the Corps' 17th Street Canal Captain.
While the storm surge from Isaac did not match the new protection, the Corps admits there were problems with sensors placed along the 17th Street Canal and some other outfall canals during the storm.
"There were four of the inside gauges that would come and go, and then a couple of them went out completely when we got to our maximum canal level," Newman said of the majority of the six gauges at the 17th Street Canal. Those gauges play a critical role during a storm.
"When we close the gates to stop the surge from the outside [of the floodgates] from coming in to these inner walls, the outfall canal walls, then the level on the inside is generally lower than the outside," said Newman.
Newman said there were brief, intermittent sensor outages. "They would come and go, some of them, you know, lose them for just a minute at a time and then they were right back," he continued.
That is not good enough for Tim Doody, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority. "If we don't have instruments that we can rely on, we're getting bad information and we're potentially sending out our employees to verify the information that we think we're receiving," Doody said.
Doody said other cities have made use of better technology. ''Absolutely, the Corps needs to be held accountable," Doody continued.
The water level in the 17th Street Canal should remain at 6.5 feet or lower, according to the Corps. At one point during Isaac, there was a flawed reading of 8 feet.
"It would have been troubling had we not been onsite and been able to see for ourselves that the levels were not there," said Newman.
The Corps provided FOX 8 News with a graphic showing where the sensors erred. Nine gauges malfunctioned at some point at the outfall canals. A tenth malfunctioned at the Seabrook as well, but the Corps could not say whether its problems were the same as those at the canals.
Corps officials maintain that their data is up-to-the-minute and more reliable than Rivergages.com, which records hourly readings.
"We have continuous data where several times per minute we get a reading from the system and it continually updates. Rivergages.com gets the readings through satellite service once per hour," said Newman.
Doody said the Flood Authority needs the best information available during storms. "We need to be provided the same information that the corps is receiving," Doody stated.
The Corps insists that the problems with the sensors never put the community at risk. ''Were ready to do whatever it took to maintain the safe canal level," Newman said.
Newman said their own investigation indicates some gauges were positioned too low. But he said raising them too high could also cause problems with their stability during a storm. He said the Corps is also looking at getting some additional gauges with a different type of technology.
For more information on this issue, visit the web site of our investigative partners at TheLensNOLA.org.