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In a 2009 report released by the Army Corps of Engineers, internal investigators cited uncoordinated construction and outdated information for the failure of the floodwalls, and Corps leadership took full responsibility for the flooding [source: CBS News].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].
Author's Note: How the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Works
Before researching this article, I knew next to nothing about the Army Corps of Engineers. I suspect I'm not the only one. I hope you were as surprised as I was to learn about the scope of the Corps' work, and that most of it resides in the civil works program, supporting water conservation and disaster relief. I am no engineer — I maxed out with Legos — but I greatly appreciate the unique skill set that engineers possess. As I read about widespread blackouts in Pakistan or the tragic collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, I'm thankful that the U.S. infrastructure is, for the most part, safe and sound. And I am proud that the Corp exports some of its expertise abroad to modernize roads, bridges and ports in developing countries.
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- Cart, Julie. "New Orleans to take over upkeep of billion-dollar levee system." The Los Angeles Times. Nov. 28, 2012. (May 31, 2013) http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/28/science/la-sci-sn-flooding-new-orleans-20121128
- CBA News. "Katrina Report Blames Levees." Feb. 11, 2009. (May 31, 2013) http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-201_162-1675244.html
- Edwards, Chris. "Cutting the Army Corps of Engineers." The CATO Institute. March 2012. (May 31, 2013) http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/usace
- Lipton, Eric. "Cost of Storm-Debris Removal in City Is at Least Twice the U.S. Average." The New York Times. April 23, 2013. (May 31, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/nyregion/debris-removal-from-hurricane-sandy-is-more-costly-than-average.html?_r=0
- Schleifstein, Mark. "Federal judge blasts Army Corps of Engineers for failing to protect New Orleanians during Katrina." The Times-Picayune. April 15, 2013. (May 31, 2013) http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2013/04/federal_judge_blasts_army_corp.html
- Sharp, Time. "Superstorm Sandy: Facts About the Frankenstorm." Live Science. Nov. 27, 2012. (May 31, 2013) http://www.livescience.com/24380-hurricane-sandy-status-data.html
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Mission Overview." http://www.usace.army.mil/Missions.aspx`
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Obtain a Permit." (May 31, 2013) http://www.usace.army.mil/Missions/CivilWorks/RegulatoryProgramandPermits/ObtainaPermit.aspx
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: A Brief History." (May 31, 2013) http://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/BriefHistoryoftheCorps/Beginnings.aspx
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Overview." (May 31, 2013) http://www.usace.army.mil/Media/FactSheets/FactSheetArticleView/tabid/219/Article/81/us-army-corps-of-engineers-overview.aspx
- Ward, Justin. "Corps of Engineers Begins Post-Sandy Comprehensive Study of North Atlantic Coast." U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. May 29, 2013. (May 31, 2013) http://www.usace.army.mil/Media/NewsArchive/tabid/204/Article/14418/corps-of-engineers-begins-post-sandy-comprehensive-study-of-north-atlantic-coast.aspx