The Hurricane Katrina presents one of the most devastating disasters ever witnessed by the global community. From the Engineering perspective, the Katrina disaster is of high relevance because it challenged ethics in engineering professional. The disaster caused a storm surge that levees in New Orleans were unable to sustain. Evidence affirms that the Katrina disaster is attributable to failures in various elements including engineering, political and social systems. In the Katrina case, the engineering failure that prompted the incident is identifiable in the fact that the engineers failed to armor or protect the levees against erosion. Other factors including the hurricane protection system, poor design of the levee, protection system and poor monitoring of the system resulted to the incident. The paper presents a post-mortem report on this distressing disaster, which is prepared for the government oversight committee. The report initially provides a background of this incident to create awareness of its context. Furthermore, the paper analyses the engineering failure by focusing on technical, engineering, regulatory, management and other socio-economic aspects that prompted the failure. The report also conducts an ethical analysis of the case and culminates by providing strategic recommendations.
Background of the Disaster
The Hurricane Katrina presents a prominent storm that washed the coast of the United States on August 29th 2005. It is apparent that a storm of the Katrina’s magnitude is likely to prompt major flooding and damage. The engineering failure that resulted to the Katrina disaster essentially happened because the engineers and authority failed to account for this consideration. The large percentage of the destruction attached to the Hurricane Katrina was not prompted by the storm itself, but mainly the storm’s exposure of the construction and engineering-relate policy failures (Easley and Pratt 21). Particularly, the floodwalls and levees failed because of the joint effect of the misinformed choices and decisions adopted by the responsible parties at all levels. Analysts have identified two direct causes of the levee failure. Initially, the collapse of numerous levees with concrete floodwalls occurred due to overtopping and the way they were designed. The water eroded the structures away as it poured over floodwalls and levees. Moreover, numerous pump stations that could be helpful in eliminating floodwaters were not functioning during the time of the storm (Griffis 191). It is also evident the concrete floodwalls (I-walls) failed because the margin of the safety utilized in the design process was very weak. This was a misinformed decision particularly putting in consideration the vital role of the hurricane protection system as an important life-safety structure. The engineering design failed to consider the inconsistency in the strength of soft soils below and adjacent to the levees. Furthermore, the engineers failed to design a model that could cater for a water-filled gap that established behind concrete floodwalls as the stretched outward following the forces exerted by the flood waves (Richardson, Peter and James 38).
The storm bathed Mississippi, Alabama and Mexico shores of Lousiana with strong winds, massive rainfall and waves. Individuals inhabiting these three states witness severe suffering and damages. The failed levees resulted to flooding that prompted the need for evacuations. The incident was characterized with massive loss of both lives and property. Destruction to buildings, waterlines, homes, power, and streets included huge losses. Studies estimate the damage attached to this disaster to be over $ 80 billion. Furthermore, about 1,800 fatalities were confirmed while over 700 people went missing. Studies account that about half of the region’s population has not yet re-settled after evacuation, thousands of jobs were lost, and the region’s economy is still crippled following this disaster. According to Lee and Willardson (14), the aftermath of the Katrina presents more than a natural disaster, but a human tragedy.
The Engineering Failure
Various post-mortem studies have evaluated the situation that caused the engineering failure identifying various factors. As initially described, the major fact that prompted the engineering failure includes the overwhelming of the levee system. Investigation reports agree that the storm that overtopped some levees caused the disaster (Palser 125).Tides and storm surge during the storm were extreme with some exceeding the design assumptions. Some reports identify that most levees toppled because the splash pads installed to check spillway erosion were too small to be effective. Furthermore, under-seepage happened because the sheet pilings installed in earthen levees were too short. This was also prompted by the fact that the underneath soil was not clay but decomposing swamp, yet the engineers failed to account for this condition. It is noted that the disposal of spoil was strained by budgets and accidentally used for levee foundation when the Mississippi River’s Gulf outlet became dredged. Most importantly, the great failure included the lateral movement of the levee part that broke from underlying soil (Richardson, Peter and James 27).
According to Newberry (538), the discontinuities in congress funding created a situation where the project had to be completed in sections. The system itself was built as individual pieces, instead of constructing an interconnected system that have strong sections positioned adjacent to weak parts (Easley and Pratt 21). In consequence, the gaps between levee frameworks developed leaks with time. The entire hurricane protection system was weak as the authority and engineers based their evaluations on cost benefit ignoring security and safety aspects. In essence, studies affirm that the system was erected in a period characterized with the pressures and ideologies for low-cost solutions and tradeoffs, which compromised safety, reliability and quality of the project.
The protection system also had various pump stations that lacked the capacity of containing hurricane forces, and there were numerous routes via the levees for railroads, roads and other utilities. The hurricane protection system was modeled for metrological situations such as wind speed and barometric force, which were not as extreme as the Weather Bureau and National Weather Service (WBNWS) that was characteristic of a major storm like Gulf Coast hurricane. In this context, there was little focus on the reliability, quality and strength of the system during construction of this protection system. These factors and the fact that the levees lacked a strategic design that could withstand overtopping caused the engineering failure (Lee and Willardson 8)
Evaluations further associate the engineering failure with the fact that engineers utilized incorrect datum to measure levee elevations, thus most of the levees were not erected high enough. In some cases, some levees were erected 1 to 2 feet lower than the desired design elevation. Moreover, the contractors failed to adopt strategic interventions to account for the fact that New Orleans sits on a subsiding terrain. In essence, the design adopted failed to compensate for the subsidence. For example, the engineers did not raise the levees up to the pre-subsidence design elevation (Daniels, Donald and Howard 45).
Another important factor to account for when examining the cause of the engineering failure that resulted to the disaster includes lack of effective monitoring measures besides the sensitive nature of the system. Studies highlight that no single agency was tasked with the responsibility of hurricane protection especially in New Orleans. Essentially, the responsibility for monitoring and managing of pump stations and levees was shared among various federal states and local agencies. In this respect, lack of inter-agency coordination resulted to abandonment and poor maintenance of the protection system (Griffis 190).
The situation surrounding the hurricane Katrina incidence presents various ethical concerns that transverse across engineering codes of ethics and authority/government’s obligation in the management of life –safety systems. Actions and positions assumed by various stakeholders including the engineers, the government and contractors highlight gross violation of ethical considerations. Initially, the authority and contractors were ignorant of the risk of inhabitants of this region despite the risk that characterized this locality (Knabb, Rhome and Brown 12). For example, New Orleans had initially witnessed such disaster although at minimal magnitudes. Despite this fact, the authority and the contractors paid little attention to these signs. The involved stakeholders failed to account for the chances of failure and consequences of such a situation in the context of the human health and safety. In consequence, the significance of evacuating people and safeguarding property was under-estimated since the risks were explored and communicated poorly.
Furthermore, serious ethical concerns present in relation to how the engineers undertook the entire construction. As cited earlier, studies attribute the entire failure of the engineering system with numerous faults that rendered the levee system and entire hurricane protection system ineffective. The New Orleans was a vulnerable area, yet the engineers went on developing their project without focusing on erecting a structure that could sustain this condition (Palser 47). For instance, the entire structure is described as lacking the capacity of withstanding strong storms. In essence, the work of the engineers who erected the structure is questionable in the context of professionalism ethics. This is affirmed by the adoption of wrong design characterized with numerous shortfalls. For example, evaluations indicate that the engineers often used wrong measuring tools that led to construction of levees that were shorter than the intended elevation design. This flaws the engineering principles that emphasize of professionalism. It is also of ethical concern that the authority based it evaluations on cost effective strategies while ignoring the public safety and reliability of the structure (Daniels, Donald and Howard 45).
Serious ethical concerns regarding the management and maintenance of the hurricane protection system are also identifiable. Initially, it is apparent that the project was poorly managed as evaluations review that various systems such as the pump stations were faulty during and after the incident. Studies also indicate that senior skilled professional did not subject the design of the hurricane protection model to thorough external examination that is mainly conducted on similar life-safety systems and structures. Poor monitoring assumed a vital role in the engineering failure that is of ethical concern since the government and other involved stakeholders have an obligation of monitoring projects that are of safety concern to the public to prevent and contain cases of disasters (Knabb, Rhome and Brown 12).
The need for adopting effective measure to avert similar encounters in the future is unchallengeable considering the detrimental consequences of the hurricane Katrina disaster. Drawing from the mistakes and flaws characterizing this incident, the report proposes the adoption and enforcement of subsequent recommendations. Initially, there is the need of prioritizing public safety by ensuring that all responsible agencies re-examine their activities and policies to foster protection of public safety and welfare. This should essentially become mandatory in projects related with elements that are of public safety concern such as hurricanes and flooding (Newberry 536).
Furthermore, the authority and other stakeholders should quantify and constantly update the assessment of risk. This strategy should be adopted in all regions that are vulnerable to severe incidents of hurricanes and flooding. This should also be accompanied by the identification of the level of acceptable risk in the society through public risk communication programs in susceptible areas. There is also the need of improving maintenance strategies by conducting frequent thorough checkups to fix system’s faults and deficiencies. Upgrade on the system should ensure that the levees are capable of surviving overtopped situations following strong storms. In consequence, the levees and I-walls should be strengthened and efficiency in the pumping system ensured.
It is apparent that the findings and recommendations presented by this report will be of great relevance in the entire world especially in relation to disaster prevention and management. The lessons identified from the engineering and engineering-related failures attached to the hurricane Katrina have reasonable implication to the entire global community. Engineers, authority and other important stakeholders should prioritize the safety of the public. It is encouraging to note that the authorities in the region that was affected by the hurricane Katrina learned from the incident and have adopted various ethical procedures aimed at addressing the problem in the future. This has included increasing funding and legislating binding policies to guide the management of hurricane and flood protection systems. However, most of these policies although proposed, have been poorly adopted due to challenges in implementation. This means authorities and other stakeholders should work hard in establishing more strategic disaster protection interventions while ensuring their full implementation.
Daniels, Ronald J, Donald F. Kettl, and Howard Kunreuther. On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.
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