Operation Recovery

A rusted barge resting on a wall with four people walking nearby.

The devastation is difficult to comprehend. Here members of the Katrina Task Force, along with members of the American Society of Civil Engineers and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, assess the damage caused by a barge which was swept overland by the flood.

Levee wall with construction equipment on top and steel anchors lying in the foreground.

Along New Orleans’ Industrial Canal a portion of the floodwall was overturned and flattened. Its steel-pile anchors, originally embedded into the levee top, were hurled back by the storm surge, allowing water to flood the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.

A steel floodwall leaning over, with two people in the background inspecting it.

Prof. Robert Bea taking notes while examining a failed floodwall. During a week’s time the team surveyed a large portion of New Orleans’ 370-mile-long levee system.

As bulldozers cleared away debris in New Orleans earlier this month, a team of researchers from CITRIS’s Katrina Recovery Task Force (KRTF) was racing ahead of construction crews, gathering vital data on what went wrong before it disappeared for good.

“It was a rush. We would come to a site and would figure out what had happened. Two hours later, bulldozers had covered the critical information. In some cases, if we hadn’t gotten there first, those sites would have been mysterious perhaps forever. So it was a very urgent task,” recalls UC Berkeley civil and environmental engineering professor Raymond Seed of the trip.

This urgent fact-finding mission is just one of several efforts that’s already been launched by the newly formed task force. CITRIS has brought together academics whose expertise ranges from organizational behavior to offshore oil infrastructure and vulnerabilities in levees. Their goals range from studying what went wrong in New Orleans to providing immediate and long-term assistance as the storm-afflicted Gulf Coast region plans and builds its new infrastructure. As was the case during the hurricane itself, speed has proven critical to making a difference.

Realizing it was important to act fast, CITRIS Director Shankar Sastry called for an emergency town hall meeting on Sept. 8. With the chaotic aftermath of Katrina still playing out live on television, professors from UC Berkeley and UC Merced shared their expertise over a live video link and began forming a plan for immediate action. In early October, two fact-finding teams were deployed to New Orleans for a week at a time with seed funding from CITRIS and the National Science Foundation. There they gathered data alongside the Army Corps of Engineers and other researchers—and often just in the nick of time–offered advice on immediate problems and planned for ongoing collaboration.

For Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor and task force member Robert Bea, who along with Professor John Radke is leading the task force’s study of the offshore and coastal infrastructure, the visit was
personal as well as professional. Bea, who’s worked for the Army Corps of Engineers, Shell, and Bechtel on pipeline infrastructure, lost his home in 1965’s to Hurricane Betsy. He describes his visit to New
Orleans with one of the KRTF teams as “déjà vu.”

To avoid a repeat of recent events, experts need a centralized place where they can disseminate and share information. To that end, Professor and task force member John Radke is building a digital library. Radke says the library will be designed “so that everyone gathering data in the field could contribute it.” He also plans to build a spatially encoded “map” of the area, that brings together data from the U. S. Geological Service, the Multiple Listings Service, and other databases. A similar tool built by Radke for the 1991 East Bay Hills firestorm has been used to identify ways to prevent future fires and assess property values and risks. That disaster killed 25 people and resulted in $1.5 billion in damage.

Of course, there are many aspects of this recent disaster that don’t neatly fit into a database. As Haas Business School Professor Karlene Roberts pointed out during the Town Hall meeting: “This began as a weather problem. It quickly moved to an engineering problem and then a set of organizational problems.” An expert in organizational behavior, Roberts is leading the KRTF study of the human social dynamics such as health care, law enforcement, and evacuation that played a critical role in the Katrina disaster.

Two people looking closely at stone ruins with rusted rebar visible.

Members of the Katrina Task Force closely inspect a levee failure. (Photograph by Rune Storesund)

Policy reform is another major goal of this task force. Seed, for one, is hoping that the current attention on levees will cause politicians to rethink how that critical infrastructure is managed in this country. For example, a levee failure along California’s Sacramento and Delta levees could result in a mass water shortage in Southern California and catastrophic damage to the state’s capital. Yet Seed says these and many others across the country are not adequately maintained.

“It’s a very dicey patchwork and we have tenuous situations in most of the fifty states. I’m going to Washington and a lot of people there are seeking to know more about this, because in the end how we construct and design levees and who has oversight over that is a policy issue for the nation,” Seed says.

While the task force’s immediate aim is to provide whatever help they can in building a stronger, better equipped Gulf Coast, it is preventing and reducing the damage from potential disasters, like a major levee failure in California, that will sustain their efforts over the long run.

“We envision a national center for catastrophic risk reduction. The lessons we are learning here have implications not only for Southern Louisiana but also California and the rest of the world,” says Bea.