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How the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Works


Criticisms of the Corps
The 17th Street Canal pumps are tested during a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hurricane preparation exercise in New Orleans, 2007. A breach in the 17th Street Canal levee flooded the area with more than 10 feet of water after Hurricane Katrina.
The 17th Street Canal pumps are tested during a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hurricane preparation exercise in New Orleans, 2007. A breach in the 17th Street Canal levee flooded the area with more than 10 feet of water after Hurricane Katrina.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina bombarded New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, claiming 1,570 lives in Louisiana alone and reducing whole neighborhoods to flood-ravaged wastelands. The cause of much of the catastrophic flooding was the failure of large sections of floodwalls designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to hold back storm surges. Katrina, despite being a relatively tame Category 3 storm, damaged 169 miles (271 kilometers) of the 350-mile (563-kilometer) floodwall system, sparking accusations of faulty construction and inadequate maintenance by the Corps [source: CBS News].

In a 2009 report released by the Army Corps of Engineers, internal investigators cited uncoordinated construction and outdated information for the failure of the floodwalls, and Corps leadership took full responsibility for the flooding [source: CBS News]. But that admission was not enough to silence the most vocal critics who believe that the agency should be liable for damages to property and loss of life.

More than 490,000 New Orleans residents filed claims with the Corps for damages. After eight years, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval was unable to award any financial damages because of a 1928 federal law that grants the Corps immunity from prosecution in cases involving the failure of flood control structures [source:Schleifstein].

In his final ruling in 2013, Judge Duval wrote, "I feel obligated to note that the bureaucratic behemoth that is the Army Corps of Engineers is virtually unaccountable to the citizens it protects" [source:Schleifstein].

Other critics echo Judge Duval's denunciation. They believe that in many cases state and local governments, and even private contractors, could do a better job for less taxpayer money [source: Edwards].

In the cleanup after Hurricane Sandy, for example, the Corps was criticized for charging $100 per cubic yard of storm debris to the state of New York, while New Jersey only paid $50 per cubic yard to its own private contractor. The Corps said the cost was justified because of the complicated nature of the debris removal, including the use of barges and the recycling efforts undertaken [source: Lipton].

"Some people think the Corps is expensive, but when you see what we bring to the table, we really are not," said Col. John Pilot, the debris team chief. "We do it right" [source: Lipton].


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