[StBernard] Hurricane Katrina and the Impact of Engineers

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Jul 30 22:13:28 EDT 2007


Hurricane Katrina and the Impact of Engineers
Ken Reid, Executive Director of the American Water Resources Association
(AWRA), saw this in the EWRI electronic newsletter and sent it to me. I
decided to post it after attending the Universities Council on Water
Resources (UCOWR)/National Institutes of Water Resources (NIWR) 2007 Annual
Meeting in Boise, ID, where one of my engineer colleagues reported "almost
zero progress" in restoring New Orleans. Another colleague related how he
had told his students for over 20 years that in the USA, great devastation
could be caused by a "water natural disaster" if 1) a "megaflood" inundated
a large city; or 2) a powerful hurricane struck a coastal metropolis. He
said New Orleans was a "twofer".

I also heard Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) speak last February on the
devastation and suffering she saw by helicopter a few days after Katrina
struck. She couldn't bear to see the people trapped on roofs, some with the
bodies of friends and relatives, desperately signaling for help that was far
too long in arriving.

Hurricane Katrina and the Impact of Engineers

>From Lopez, John A., 2006. The Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy to Sustain

Coastal Louisiana. Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Metairie, LA (at

The Thoughts of Stephan Butler, P.E., M.ASCE

Office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA)
2007 ASCE Congressional Fellow

Note: Stephan Butler is a participant in ASCE's Congressional Fellowship
program, which since 1996 has given engineers the opportunity to spend a
year's term working in the U.S. Congress.

In April's Congressional Fellow Report I touched on the importance of access
and proximity to our elected officials and briefly described my job function
and the policy proposals on which I've been working. This month I would like
to drill deeper into those topics, illustrating the discussion with stories
from my visits to Louisiana.

When I arrived on Capitol Hill I made visiting Louisiana my first order of
business, on the belief that I would be better able to consider federal
policy matters and their implications on Louisiana if I understood the
problems being faced by its citizens while rebuilding and recovering from
hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With this goal in mind, I met with some of the
citizens and professional groups involved in the rebuilding of New Orleans.
I was especially touched by my meetings with representatives from the
grassroots groups Levees.org, the Episcopal Relief and Development Office of
Disaster Response, Jericho Road (Episcopal Housing Initiative) and All
Congregations Together. These groups represent the residents of New Orleans
who, acknowledging a present leadership vacuum in the local community, have
banded together to reconstruct their own neighborhoods and communities.
Jericho Road, for instance, aims to be the catalyst that will bring
displaced families home by providing quality housing opportunities for low
income families. They hope their efforts will lead to long term housing
collaborations throughout the city and in that way empower individuals,
rehabilitate neighborhoods and transform communities.

I also met with Levees.org founder Sandy Rosenthal, whose group is
advocating for an independent bipartisan Levee Commission to investigate the
failure of the federal flood protection in metro New Orleans. The grassroots
group, which now numbers over 12,000 members, was recognized as a "powerful
force" by Congressman Bobby Jindal, who stated the following: "The voice of
Levees.org members over the past year has been a powerful force in helping
members of Congress and the White House see the importance of providing
South Louisiana with Category 5 hurricane protection and giving Louisiana a
share of offshore energy royalties so that Louisiana can begin to rebuild
its coasts."

Also, I was fortunate to get a personalized tour of the Port of New Orleans
with Deborah Ducote Keller, P.E., Director of the Port Development Division,
past president of the ASCE's New Orleans Branch and resident of St. Bernard
Parish. During the tour of the facilities and the adjacent neighborhoods, I
found myself overwhelmed and in shock. As a World Trade Center first
responder after 9/11, I thought I understood devastation, but the impact on
New Orleans stretches for mile after square mile. Vast regions of the city
and surrounding parishes are obliterated. The houses continue to be safety
and health hazards, as they still need to be gutted and demolished; the
roadways have lost their top courses, are buckled, and have sink holes;
other crucial infrastructure is similarly destroyed.

Seeing the scope of the problem confirmed my belief that I made the correct
decision by coming to work on Capitol Hill, which has allowed me to bring
engineering ideas, such as the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation's work on
multiple lines of defense and better land use practices, to Washington,
D.C., for consideration by law makers.

More broadly, I believe that the USA's infrastructure systems have
deteriorated to the point where this country's future economic
competitiveness is in jeopardy and our elected officials, who are entrusted
with safeguarding our nation's future, have ignored the warnings. Reversing
or even arresting the decline of infrastructure systems will require
creative solutions and visionary leadership from the engineering community.

In this context, there are two readily-apparent ways for engineers to affect
change. First, engineers need to position themselves better by seeking
public office, which would provide them with proximity and access to the
legislative process. Second, in order to help Congress to better understand
technology transfers and complex scientific principles before implementing
new policies, the engineering discipline should actively recruit and pitch
its professionals for placement on lawmaker and committee staffs. This
second tactic is likely to require a cultural shift in the engineering
profession. Talented engineers will not readily pursue alternative but
important career paths if they think that their work will be dismissed or
devalued by the profession, including its societies and licensing boards.
Likewise, lawmakers and committees are unlikely to understand the benefits
of having engineers on their staffs and deferring to their judgment on
important social issues without a significant public relations campaign by
the profession. The stakes are high enough, however, that extreme measures
are necessary.

I firmly believe that engineers must get involved in the political process
in order to affect change, and I urge every engineer who reads this article
to consider competing for an appointment to the Congressional Fellowship or
support an employee who would like to do so. The Fellowship provides one of
the best ways to share your expertise and experiences with our country's top
decision-makers. Also, it allows you to learn new approaches to
communication, managing, problem-solving and advocating for vital public
works projects.

"And Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." -- George W. Bush, in the wake
of Hurricane Katrina, to then-FEMA Director Michael Brown, 2 September 2005.

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