"They're not the Army Corps of Nature," Tulane's Houck told ABC News. "They're the Army Corps of Engineers. They suck mud. They pour concrete. That's what they learn in school. That's what they go out and do. They're thinking levees. They're thinking pumps. They're thinking concrete. They're thinking 'beat nature. We're the nature-beating organization.' You go to their libraries, go to their [public relations] shops and just pull the films of the conquest of this or the conquest of that. They're conquistadores."
"You can't beat nature down here. You're going to have to live with it. You can't beat it. And the idea that we're going to build some kind of castle down here with big enough castle walls to hold out the Gulf of Mexico is fantasy," said Houck.
While there was plenty of finger-pointing to go around at the time, Hurricane Katrina was largely viewed as a damning indictment of the corps' flood protection duties in the Crescent City. Former U.S. Corps of Engineers commander and chief engineer Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock publicly acknowledged as much in June 2006, when he said that it was a "catastrophic failure."
As a result, all the corps' work in New Orleans — past, present and future — has come under intense scrutiny from all sides, in and outside the government. The work has been studied, critiqued, debated and reviewed seemingly endlessly.
"We take input from a lot of people," said Karen Durham-Aguilera, the civilian director of Task Force Hope, the corps' hurricane protection system in New Orleans. "We deal almost on a daily basis with local governments, with levee authorities … with neighborhood groups, with the convention and visitors bureau, with the insurance industry."
"We answer to a lot of people," she said.
So after Katrina, the corps, in conjunction with a vast interagency task force, built a storm modeling system that can track 152 different storm paths, ranging from a 25-year to a 5,000-year storm. It has used that modeling system as a blueprint to determine which areas in the city's flood protection plan are the neediest.
"We have strengthened levees," said Durham-Aguilera. "We have strengthened transition points were soil meets cement. We have improved flood walls. We have put surge barriers in. … We have added pumping capacity. We have done a lot of things, and based on our various modeling … the hurricane system is better and stronger than it was prior to Katrina."
One key new feature of the system are floodgates along the northern wall of the city bordering Lake Ponchartrain, built in conjunction with new pumps so strong that corps officials say they can drain an Olympic-size swimming pool in seven to eight seconds. The agency is also planning a new drainage system that could substantially alleviate flooding in some parts of the city.
"This is a holistic approach," said the corps' Col. Jeff Bedey, commander of the corps' Hurricane Protection office. "This is a systems approach to hurricane protection … not a system in name only, but truly a system."
One place where the system isn't working so well yet is St. Bernard Parish, the low-lying parish on the southeastern edge of the city.
Experts, studies and eyewitnesses say the most serious flaws in the rebuilt system of levees and flood walls are along the 76-mile Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (known locally as "Mister GO") canal on the eastern edge of the Plaquemines/St. Bernard Parish region.