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----------------------------------You get what you pay for
Raymond Seed, PhD, professor of civil engineering, University of California, Berkeley; team leader, Independent Levee Investigation Team
During Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans's levee and flood control system crumbled. More than 1100 people died, hundreds of thousands were displaced as their homes were destroyed, and the city and its people lost millions of dollars to damage and lost tourism.
So what caused the world's most costly failure of an engineered system?
Seed uncovered the unsavory answer: It wasn't just the hurricane. The local and federal governments could have used better materials to build the levees. Instead, safety was trumped by cost-cutting.
“We kept trading risk against efficiency, and we're telling people we're protecting them,” says Seed. “Build it right, or don't build it at all.”
Seed led a National Science Foundation-sponsored team of 38 engineers and investigators as they examined why New Orleans's levees and flood protection system failed. They worked for free because, Seed says, it was the right thing to do.
The Independent Levee Investigation Team presented its findings in May, and Seed pulled no punches. In addition to cost-cutting, Seed also cited poor design and construction, infighting among local agencies that prevented work from being done, stingy federal funding that delayed projects, and lots of human errors as reasons for the levee failures. The bottom line: Most of the levees would have withstood the storm if they'd been built properly.
To avert other catastrophes, the team recommended changes from the White House and Congress to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all the way down to the local levee district level. In his report, Seed stated that short-term savings will result in massively larger losses when disaster strikes.
“In the end, we will get no more than what we pay for, and we get that only if we are careful and clever,” Seed says.
— Victoria K. Sicaras