October 29, 2007 — -- WASHINGTON — Dozens of construction projects launched by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the New Orleans region from the most catastrophic floods are behind schedule by an average of nearly eight months, an internal audit shows. Local officials are concerned the completion date will have to be pushed back a second time.
The audit reviewed 60 ongoing projects to make southern Louisiana's flood protections far more robust than when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the system in 2005. USA TODAY got a copy of the Army Audit Agency's report under the Freedom of Information Act.
Nearly 85% of construction contracts for upgrades to the region's flood-control system are behind schedule by an average of about 230 days, the audit says. About 74% of pre-construction design contracts for other improvements also are lagging, by an average of 122 days, or about four months.
Congress mandated in June 2006 that projects meet the 100-year-flood test as a response to Katrina, which washed out entire communities and displaced thousands of residents. The flooding exceeded the worst-case scenarios used to design southern Louisiana's protections in the 1950s and '60s.
"The corps is telling us they'll be able to meet the deadlines, but I'm not sure we understand exactly how," says Tim Doody of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, which manages several levee networks in the region. "We think it probably will be another year after 2011."
John Meador, deputy director of the corps' rebuilding effort, says the engineers are "still optimistic" about meeting the deadline. "On a daily basis, we're looking at options to ensure that we can stay on target," he says.
Meador and the auditors attribute the contracting delays mainly to the long scientific debate over how bad a 100-year flood might be. Engineers needed to know the parameters of that threat before they could develop flood controls capable of protecting against it.
The corps finalized its 100-year-flood models two weeks ago.
"This whole process really is an unprecedented effort," Meador says, noting that the corps expects to spend nearly $15 billion to rebuild and improve southern Louisiana's flood controls.
The design and construction delays were the only bleak spot in an audit that said the corps is doing a good job in writing contracts that protect government interests, hold contractors accountable, and steer substantial work to Louisiana-based firms.
The wait for 100-year-flood models has limited the corps' ability to do environmental impact studies and acquire property for expanded levees and flood walls.
"The big concerns now are the land issues, purchasing real estate (to expand levees and flood walls)," Doody says. "Owners' rights and property rights make that very complicated."
Katrina hit in August 2005 as a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step measurement scale, a magnitude that area flood controls were expected to handle. The storm, however, inflicted moderate to severe damage on nearly 50% of the 350 miles of levees and flood walls in southern Louisiana. It also destroyed 34 of 71 pump stations. About 75% of New Orleans flooded.