Corps of Engineers Dealing with Infrastructure Repair In Wake of Hurricane Katrina
Katrina made a second landfall at 10 a.m. August 29 near Pearlington, Mississippi, with 125 mph winds and a storm surge 20 feet high and 80 miles wide that destroyed huge swaths of houses and buildings - some entire towns.
Prior to arrival on the Gulf Coast, Katrina made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane in Florida near Hallandale Beach on the Dade-Broward county line at 6:30 p.m. EDT on August 25. Before it exited at the southern tip of the state, Katrina had killed 14 people. As it continued on its way across the Gulf of Mexico, it gained in strength, reaching sustained velocity of 175 mph, with gusts to 216 mph.
The night before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast - Sunday, August 28 - Col. Rich Wagenaar, commander and chief engineer of the New Orleans District Corps of Engineers spent the night in a bunker at the district headquarters building, which is on the Mississippi River several miles from the New Orleans city center. With him were seven other Corps of Engineers employees and a civilian security guard. Col. Wagenaar explained that he stayed in the bunker in order to be on the spot as soon as the hurricane had passed.
The group emerged from the bunker at about 1 p.m. on September 29th, and Col. Wagenaar established an emergency operations center (EOC) in the building. He then attempted to get to the 17th Street Canal in an SUV with two companions, but could not get closer than about a mile and a half, due to flooding.
A second attempt to get there around the southern side of the canal - along I-10/610 revealed a significant amount of water where the two freeways split.
"I estimated at that time it was somewhere around 10 feet of water, 10 to 15 feet of water," he said.
Returning to headquarters at 6 or 7 p.m, he made a report to his commander, and did not let anyone leave the compound that night.
On Tuesday morning he sent two people in a boat to view the breaches, as he had tried to request a helicopter, but could not get through because all communications were failing.
He finally got through via his satellite phone, and at about 9:15 a helicopter arrived. He flew over the 17th Street Canal and the Inner Harbor Navigation canal and confirmed the failure of the levees, returning to headquarters at about 1:30 p.m.
With him in the bunker had been Corps employees Perry Lartigue, Chris Colombo, Jim Walters, Jim Davis, Dave Wurtzel, Joe Baker, and Jeffery Richie.
On Sept. 1, Lieutenant General Carl A. Strock, Chief of Engineers, gave a statement.
"All of the efforts and the missions we've been given are in place and ready; these include provisions of ice, water, temporary power, temporary housing and roofing; and then whatever else is necessarily in public works infrastructure.
"We have the responsibility to conduct flood fighting and open navigation channels after an event like this; and our final role is in support of Joint Task Force Katrina, which is a Department of Defense task force. I have a small element moving forward now to link into that task force, to ensure that the Corps of Engineers is providing all the support necessary to the responders in the task force, and then to those that they are serving."
Col. Wagenaar had established an EOC at the Vicksburg District Headquarters, under the command of Maj. Murray Starkel, and also at the Memphis District. In succeeding days, New Orleans District employees in Vicksburg carried out their duties not knowing the fates of their homes and sometimes of their families.
One of the commander's concerns was to account for all the 1232 District employees and to reconstitute the District operation. He was able to concentrate on this job after Col. Duane Gapinski took over management of the unwatering mission for the City of New Orleans. Col. Gapinski is the commander of the Corps Rock Island District.
On September 19, Col. Wagenaar reported that 1231 of the employees had been accounted for, (and there were indications that the missing employee was safe), and declared that day to be "R Day or Reconstitution Day.
“We started bringing employees back to the district today under a deliberate plan to repopulate the district," he told reporters.
The Corps' mission was to repair the breaches to stop the flow of water into the city, repair the massive pumps, which had been engulfed in the flooding, and to get the water out of the city. They were also charged with restoring navigation in all local shipping channels, and in Mississippi, to carry out relief efforts and debris removal under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA).
The breaches were at the 17th Street Canal, the London Avenue Canal and in the Industrial Canal (also called the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal). All these waterways connect to Lake Pontchartrain, and water was flowing into the city from the lake, inundating the neighborhoods just south of the lake in Orleans Parish, and in St. Bernard Parish east of the Industrial Canal - the Lower Ninth Ward and neighborhoods farther east.
Various methods of repairing the breaches were used, including placing huge sandbags carried by helicopter, and smaller sandbags delivered by barge. Temporary roads were eventually built through flooded areas to allow land-based equipment to approach the areas. The breach in the industrial canal was repaired by ton-sized boulders with smaller aggregate on top. The levees were purposely breached in several places to allow water to drain, then filled in again after the water level stabilized.
An emergency contract was let to Shaw Environmental Group for water removal and miscellaneous construction in the City of New Orleans, and to Kellogg Brown and Root for unwatering.
Beginning on August 31, the public affairs office at Corps headquarters in Washington D.C. began holding daily phone-in press conferences. These were "attended" mostly by mainstream press people and a few interested trade magazines. The conference calls were connected to the command posts in Vicksburg and New Orleans, where obviously-weary Corps of Engineers personnel fielded questions from reporters.
In the first days, the questions challenged Corps people to explain how this flooding could have happened, asking why the levees were not adequate to handle more than a Category 3 hurricane.
As the days continued, reporters began to realize that flood control projects are authorized and funded by the U.S. Congress; that the Corps of Engineers can only carry out the mission assigned to them.
Corps group leaders in Vicksburg and New Orleans several times stressed that government employees in those places were also victims of the storm, sometimes not knowing the status of their homes and family members. Soon the questions took on more of a spirit of inquiry rather than challenge. Government experts on all phases of the recovery effort, including navigation, debris removal in Mississippi and Louisiana, and especially the unwatering of the City of New Orleans, were available every day, answering questions and promising follow-up calls and emails if the information was not at hand.
On September 8, Barry Holliday, chief of Navigation at Corps headquarters in Washington D.C., reported "The Port of Mobil is basically fully operational. There are some minor restrictions and the Coast Guard is still working diligently to put in some aids to navigation, to improve the 24-hour operation of shipping in that channel.
Pascagoula has some shoaling in it, but is getting close to being fully operational. There are a couple of minor obstructions that we'll remove from that channel and then this should back to functioning. Biloxi and Gulfport still have some restraining obstructions and some shoals in there, and the Coast Guard has those two projects still closed. The good news is that we have a fully operational Gulf Intracoastal Waterway from Texas to Florida. They did have to detour around the Industrial Canal up in New Orleans proper and go down Baptiste Collette and then come back up, and that adds about 24 hours to the journey, but it is a viable alternative.
"We have a couple of obstructions in the mouth of the Southwest Pass in the Mississippi River that we're trying to remove. We have a contractor on scene, and they're working to have those removed.
"Subsequent to that, there will be a few days of effort by the Coast Guard to reinstall the aids to navigation in the Mississippi so we can get full deep draft operation back up to New Orleans and Baton Rouge. And Port Fouchon on the west side of the Mississippi River does have some wrecks that are adjacent to the channel which cause some impacts to operations, but other than the damage to the port itself, the channel is fairly viable," said Holliday.
The U.S. Coast Guard declared the Mississippi River open as of September 11 at 5 p.m., with the only restrictions in the Southwest Pass, where all navigation aids had not been replaced. By this time, the hopper dredge Stuyvesant was working in Southwest Pass under an emergency contract awarded on September 9.
In Mississippi, the Corps of Engineers effort was focused on debris removal, temporary roofing and temporary buildings, as well as providing ice and water - missions assigned to them by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Michael Logue explained that a Debris Project Response Team consisting of veteran Corps debris management specialists was in place in different places in Mississippi to oversee the debris removal. Former Corps employees were returning, and "because of the sheer scope of the disaster, people like the Seabees" are on location, said Logue.
On September 12, Logue reported that the Corps mission (assigned to them by FEMA) included removing 18 to 20 million cubic yards of debris, equivalent to 300 football fields piled 50 feet high. It will take eight months to remove the debris and a year and a half to dispose of it. Later, the figure was increased to 40 million cubic yards of debris - in Mississippi alone.
On September 21, Mitch Frazier, who had come temporarily from the Kansas City District to work in public affairs, reported that 90 percent of downtown New Orleans was dry, with the exception of localized puddling.
"We have began inserting sheet piling at the heads of both 17th Street Canal and London Street Canals," Frazier continued. "We believe that we can sustain an additional six inches of rain and a storm surge in the area of 17th Street and London Canal of approximately 10 to 12 feet," he said.
On September 23, the storm surge from Hurricane Rita, passing in the Gulf of Mexico, overtopped and eroded the repaired breaches in the Industrial Canal, re-flooding the Lower Ninth Ward and other parts of St. Bernard Parish, which had all been pumped dry in the unwatering operation.
On that day, Col. Wagenaar addressed the daily media roundtable, describing the extent of the breach and the Corps' attempts to repair it. However, the storm was still raging, with 40 to 50-mile-per-hour winds, which hampered the operations.
Hurricane Rita made landfall at Sabine Pass, Texas and Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana at 2:38 a.m. central daylight time on Saturday, September 24, bringing a storm surge of 10 feet and winds of 120 miles per hour.
On September 26, Galveston District Engineer Col. Steve Haustein reported that the Houston Ship Channel, authorized to 45 feet, was free of hazards but restricted to a 35 -foot depth until the safety could be assured for deeper draft ships. In an overflight of the ship channel after Rita passed, Col. Haustein noted that all the wetlands created by dredged material from the recent expansion of the Houston Ship Channel were undamaged.
The port of Texas City was diverting traffic elsewhere, while the Sabine-Neches waterway was being sidescan surveyed, and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was clear, with traffic moving on it on the whole Texas coastline.
The Freeport Channel, authorized to 45 feet, was restricted to 28 feet.
In New Orleans, there was six feet of water in the Lower Ninth Ward and other parts of St. Bernard Parish, putting the unwatering project behind about a week.
Corps of Engineers personnel from the New Orleans District continue to work, though many have lost their homes and don't know what the future will bring.
John Hall, of the New Orleans Public Affairs office, is living in a motel in Vicksburg, and working at the Emergency Operations Center there.
In a phone conversation on September 23, he said "Our home was in Gentilly," south of the lakefront, in an area that sustained some of the worst flooding. Reflecting on the plights of hundreds of thousands of displaced people who are living in shelters, he said "We consider ourselves fortunate. We sleep on clean sheets in an air conditioned room. We can take a shower."
He said he hoped he could go back to his desk in the New Orleans District building, but it depends on the government, whether he can get temporary housing in New Orleans.
On September 28, Mitch Frazier reported that about 400 New Orleans District employees were back at work, most of them able to return to their own homes, which were out of the flood area. The Corps hopper Dredge Wheeler had been serving as a quarters and dining facility for emergency personnel since before Katrina hit, sailing to Baton Rouge during the storm, then returned and is moored on the river on Corps property. The Wheeler rode out Hurricane Rita at her moorings at the New Orleans District.