Posts For November 30th, 2005

New Orleans Flood Walls

The floodwall on the 17th Street Canal levee was destined to fail long before it reached its maximum design load of 14 feet of water because the Army Corps of Engineers underestimated the weak soil layers 10 to 25 feet below the levee, the state’s forensic levee investigation team concluded in a report to be released this week.

That miscalculation was so obvious and fundamental, investigators said, they "could not fathom" how the design team of engineers from the corps, local firm Eustis Engineering and the national firm Modjeski and Masters could have missed what is being termed the costliest engineering mistake in American history.

The failure of the wall and other breaches in the city’s levee system flooded much of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore Aug. 29, prompting investigations that have raised questions about the basic design and construction of the floodwalls.

"It’s simply beyond me," said Billy Prochaska, a consulting engineer in the forensic group known as Team Louisiana. "This wasn’t a complicated problem. This is something the corps, Eustis, and Modjeski and Masters do all the time. Yet everyone missed it — everyone from the local offices all the way up to Washington."

Team Louisiana, which consists of six LSU professors and three independent engineers, reached its conclusions by plugging soil strength data available to the corps into the engineering equations used to determine whether a wall is strong enough to withstand the force of rising water caused by a hurricane.

"Using the data we have available from the corps, we did our own calculations on how much water that design could take in these soils before failure," said LSU professor Ivor van Heerden, a team member. "Our research shows it would fail at water levels between 11 and 12 feet — which is just what happened" in Katrina.

Not deep enough

Several high-level academic and professional investigations have found that the sheet piling used in the design to support the floodwalls was too short for the 18.5-foot depth of the canal. In addition to holding up the concrete "cap" on the walls, the sheet piling is supposed to serve as a barrier preventing the migration of water from the canal through the porous soils to the land side of the levee, an event that rapidly weakens the soils supporting a wall and can cause it to shift substantially.

The corps has long claimed the sheet piling was driven to 17.5 feet deep, but Team Louisiana recently used sophisticated ground sonar to prove it was only 10 feet deep.

Van Heerden said Team Louisiana’s latest calculations prove investigators’ claims that a depth of 17 feet would have made little difference. He said the team ran the calculations for sheet piles at 17 feet and 16 feet deep, and the wall still would have failed at a load of 11 to 12 feet of water.

Investigators have been puzzled by the corps’ design since it was made public in news reports. They said it was obvious the weak soils in the former swampland upon which the canal and levee were built clearly called for sheet piles driven much deeper than the canal bottom. It was not a challenging engineering problem, investigators said.

Prochaska said a rule of thumb is that the length of sheet piling below a canal bottom should be two to three times longer than the length extending above the canal bottom.

"That’s if you have uniform soils, and we certainly don’t have that in the New Orleans area," he said. "It kind of boggles the mind that they missed this, because it’s so basic, and there were so many qualified engineers working on this."

Corps approved design

According to records, Eustis Engineering provided the detailed analyses of the ability of soils along the path of the levee to withstand water pressure once the wall was built on top. The information was provided to Modjeski and Masters, the contractor that designed the wall for the corps. If the project followed normal procedures, the engineers with those firms were using design criteria spelled out in various corps handbooks. "You use the corps cookbook, and you usually have to work it out using corps (computer) programs," Prochaska said.

Private-sector engineering work must be reviewed by corps personnel in relevant sections. In this case, legal documents show, the work was reviewed by engineers in the corps’ geotechnical and structural engineering branches, as well as the flood control structures section. It was approved and accepted by the district’s chief engineer at the time, Chester Ashley, according to the documents.

Robert Bea, a University of California, Berkeley professor who led a National Science Foundation investigation of the levee failures, said the mistakes made by the engineers on the project were hard to accept because the project was so "straightforward."

"It’s hard to understand, because it seemed so simple, and because the failure has become so large," Bea said.

"This is the largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States. Nothing has come close to the $300 billion in damages and half-million people out of their homes and the lives lost," he said. "Nothing this big has ever happened before in civil engineering."

Bob Marshall can be reached at rmarshall@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3539.

 

!00 Best Books 2005

December 4, 2005
Holiday Books

100 Notable Books of the Year

The Book Review has selected this list from books reviewed since the Holiday Books issue of Dec. 5, 2004.

Fiction & Poetry

BEYOND BLACK. By Hilary Mantel. (John Macrae/Holt, $26.) Neurotic, demanding ghosts haunt a British clairvoyant in this darkly comic novel.

A CHANGED MAN. By Francine Prose. (HarperCollins, $24.95.) A neo-Nazi engages a Jewish human rights leader in this morally concerned novel, asking for help in his effort to repent.

COLLECTED POEMS, 1943-2004. By Richard Wilbur. (Harcourt, $35.) This urbane poetry survived the age of Ginsberg, Lowell and Plath.

EMPIRE RISING. By Thomas Kelly. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) A muscular historical novel in which the Irish erect the Empire State Building in a cheerfully corrupt New York.

ENVY. By Kathryn Harrison. (Random House, $24.95.) A psychoanalyst is unhappy but distant until Greek-tragedy things start happening in this novel by an ace student of sexual violation.

EUROPE CENTRAL. By William T. Vollmann. (Viking, $39.95.) A novel, mostly in stories, of Middle European fanaticism and resistance to it in the World War II period.

FOLLIES: New Stories. By Ann Beattie. (Scribner, $25.) This keen observer of the surface of life now slows down for an occasional epiphany.

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. By J. K. Rowling. Illustrated by Mary GrandPré. (Arthur A. Levine/ Scholastic, $29.99.) In this sixth volume of the epic series, the Dark Lord, Voldemort, is wreaking havoc throughout England and Harry, now 16, is more isolated than ever.

HOME LAND. By Sam Lipsyte. (Picador, paper, $13.) Lipsyte’s antihero, a loser but unbowed, asserts in endless letters to his alumni magazine that all the others are losers too.

THE HOT KID. By Elmore Leonard. (Morrow, $25.95.) Many seek fame in this rendering of America’s criminal landscape in the 1930’s; the title character, a killer lawman, achieves it.

HOW WE ARE HUNGRY: Stories. By Dave Eggers. (McSweeney’s, $22.) A shining miscellany peopled by characters in close touch with childhood.

IN CASE WE’RE SEPARATED: Connected Stories. By Alice Mattison. (Morrow/HarperCollins, $23.95.) The stories concern a family whose members couldn’t lose each other if they tried.

INDECISION. By Benjamin Kunkel. (Random House, $21.95.) This postmodern, posteverything, fresh and funny novel by a young writer seems to develop a nonironic social conscience.

KAFKA ON THE SHORE. By Haruki Murakami. (Knopf, $25.95.) Two characters alternate in this dreamish novel: a boy fleeing an Oedipal prophecy and a witless old man who can talk to cats.

LUNAR PARK. By Bret Easton Ellis. (Knopf, $25.) A novel starring a brat named Bret Easton Ellis, who knows everybody and has more fun than ever happens to real people.

MAPS FOR LOST LOVERS. By Nadeem Aslam. (Knopf, $25.) Unhappy Pakistani exiles in a cold, hard Britain populate this intricate novel.

THE MARCH. By E. L. Doctorow. (Random House, $25.95.) Characters in this absorbing novel are transformed by distress and destruction as Sherman marches to the sea in 1864.

MEMORIES OF MY MELANCHOLY WHORES. By Gabriel García Márquez. (Knopf, $20.) A strange and luminous novel whose elderly hero pays for sex but finds love.

MIGRATION: New and Selected Poems. By W. S. Merwin. (Copper Canyon, $40.) Half a century’s work, from archaic allegories to unpointed lyrics to secular prophecy and wisdom verses.

MISSING MOM. By Joyce Carol Oates. (Ecco/ HarperCollins, $25.95.) This novel peers into the void left by a woman’s sudden absence.

MISSION TO AMERICA. By Walter Kirn. (Doubleday, $23.95.) In his new novel, Kirn invents a religion whose believers hit the road to recruit.

MOTHER’S MILK. By Edward St. Aubyn. (Open City, $23.) In this novel an ancient family’s sins are visited on its offspring, who repeat them.

NATURAL HISTORY: Poems. By Dan Chiasson. (Knopf, $23.) This second collection conjures a postmodern landscape where folk knowledge and superstitions arrange into oddly moving litanies.

NEVER LET ME GO. By Kazuo Ishiguro. (Knopf, $24.) This bold novel imagines a school where clones are trained for a terrible destiny.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. By Cormac McCarthy. (Knopf, $24.95.) Women grieve, men fight in this hard-boiled Texas noir crime novel.

ON BEAUTY. Zadie Smith. (Penguin Press, $25.95.) The author of ”White Teeth” pounces on a place like Harvard in a cultural-politics comedy.

OVERLORD: Poems. By Jorie Graham. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $22.95.) Politics and World War II, mediated by a major poet.

THE PAINTED DRUM. By Louise Erdrich. (HarperCollins, $25.95.) A ceremonial drum is magically linked to children and death in Erdrich’s latest novel set among the Ojibwa.

PLEASE DON’T COME BACK FROM THE MOON. By Dean Bakopoulos. (Harcourt, $23.) When the fathers in the Rust Belt town of this novel abandon it en masse, their sons take over.

PREP. By Curtis Sittenfeld. (Random House, $21.95.) A scholarship girl at a nifty prep school is thrust into a world of privilege in this novel.

SATURDAY. By Ian McEwan. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.) This novel traces a day off in the life of an English neurosurgeon who comes face to face with senseless violence.

THE SEA. By John Banville. (Knopf, $23.) Banville’s new novel, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize, concerns an aging art critic mourning his wife’s recent death – and his blighted life.

SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY. By Elliot Perlman. (Riverhead, $27.95.) An Australian novel so large in its concept of fiction’s grasp on the world it takes seven narrators just to tell it.

SHALIMAR THE CLOWN. By Salman Rushdie. (Random House, $25.95.) Beauty loses out as Kashmir and Rushdie’s characters who live there turn brutal.

SLOW MAN. By J. M. Coetzee. (Viking, $24.95.) Crippled at 60 in a car-bike accident, instructed willy-nilly by a know-it-all female novelist, Coetzee’s hero studies the diminished life.

STAR DUST. Frank Bidart. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20.) The fastidious and the primal join in poems concerned with man as maker.

THE SUCCESSOR. By Ismail Kadare. (Arcade, $24.) A whodunit tragicomedy by Albania’s pre-eminent novelist, about a loyal Communist who dies before succeeding to power in that unlucky land.

TOWELHEAD. By Alicia Erian. (Simon & Schuster, $22.) A bluntly erotic novel whose narrator’s budding sexuality gets her driven from home.

VERONICA. By Mary Gaitskill. (Pantheon, $23.) A novel that ruminates on beauty and cruelty, told by a former Paris model now sick and poor.

Nonfiction

THE ACCIDENTAL MASTERPIECE: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. By Michael Kimmelman. (Penguin Press, $24.95.) A study of the unpredictable, by the chief art critic of The Times.

AHMAD’S WAR, AHMAD’S PEACE: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq. By Michael Goldfarb. (Carroll & Graf, $25.95.) A memoir of a good man murdered for his decency.

AMERICAN PROMETHEUS: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. (Knopf, $35.) The first full biography of the atom bomb’s father — rich in new revelations.

ARE MEN NECESSARY? When Sexes Collide. By Maureen Dowd. (Putnam, $25.95.) The Times’s twice-a-week Op-Ed columnist for the last decade expands her observations on the gender situation, from the Y chromosome up.

ARMAGEDDON: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945. By Max Hastings. (Knopf, $30.) Though obviously beaten, the Germans wouldn’t give up; an experienced journalist pursues the apparent paradox.

THE ASSASSINS’ GATE: America in Iraq. By George Packer. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) The New Yorker reporter reviews the pride and ignorance he blames for the war.

THE BEATLES: The Biography. By Bob Spitz. (Little, Brown, $29.95.) Spitz’s broad, incisive chronicle breathes new life into the familiar story of the Liverpool boys who conquered the entertainment world.

BECOMING JUSTICE BLACKMUN: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey. By Linda Greenhouse. (Times Books/Holt, $25.) A Times correspondent tells how a Minnesota lawyer became the author of the Roe v. Wade decision.

BEYOND GLORY: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink. By David Margolick. (Knopf, $26.95.) A heavyweight chronicle of good’s symbolic clash with evil in the ring.

BOSS TWEED: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York. By Kenneth D. Ackerman. (Carroll & Graf, $27.) The colorful master of graft, our greatest.

BREAK, BLOW, BURN. By Camille Paglia. (Pantheon, $20.) Smart, lively essays on 43 poems, written without ego for a popular audience.

BURY THE CHAINS: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. By Adam Hochschild. (Houghton Mifflin, $26.95.) How the struggle availed, especially when black Haitian armies beat white French and British ones.

COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. By Jared Diamond. (Viking, $29.95.) In ”Guns, Germs, and Steel” (1997), Diamond speculated on how the world reached its present pecking order of nations; his latest book examines geographic and environmental reasons some societies have fallen apart.

CONSPIRACY OF FOOLS: A True Story. By Kurt Eichenwald. (Broadway, $26.) A meticulous dissection of the rise and fall of Enron by a correspondent for The New York Times.

DE KOONING: An American Master. By Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. (Knopf, $35.) An exploration at length of de Kooning’s life and work and their role in art’s midcentury upheaval.

DREAM BOOGIE: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. By Peter Guralnick. (Little, Brown, $27.95.) This exhaustive biography surrounds Cooke in the overlapping worlds of gospel, the civil rights movement and rock ‘n’ roll.

ELIA KAZAN: A Biography. By Richard Schickel. (HarperCollins. $29.95.) The stranger-than-fiction life story of the distinguished stage and screen director.

AN END TO SUFFERING: The Buddha in the World. By Pankaj Mishra. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) An intellectual autobiography: what Mishra has learned from the Buddha’s legacy.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. By Charles C. Mann. (Knopf, $30.) This sweeping portrait of pre-Columbian civilization argues that it was far more populous and sophisticated than previously thought.

FREAKONOMICS: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. (Morrow, $25.95.) A maverick scholar and a journalist apply economic thinking to everything from sumo wrestlers who cheat to legalized abortion and the falling crime rate.

GARBAGE LAND: On the Secret Trail of Trash. By Elizabeth Royte. (Little, Brown, $24.95.) A chronicle of the weird stuff that happens to what we discard.

THE GLASS CASTLE: A Memoir. By Jeannette Walls. (Scribner, $25.) Walls and her three sibs, dragged all over the country by damaged parents, thought it a glorious adventure. Tough kids.

A GREAT IMPROVISATION: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. By Stacy Schiff. (Holt, $30.) A wise account of Benjamin Franklin’s diplomatic brilliance, revealed in Paris at 70.

IN COMMAND OF HISTORY: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War. By David Reynolds. (Random House, $35.) How a very busy man and a staff of busy assistants managed to turn out six volumes in 1948-54.

JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU: Restless Genius. By Leo Damrosch. (Houghton Mifflin, $30.) A life of the self-taught Swiss who proclaimed the noble savage and denounced conventional social distinctions.

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. By Richard Parker. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35.) The career of a public intellectual, ambassador and aphorist.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BRONX IS BURNING: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City. By Jonathan Mahler. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) A narrative that captures New York City’s about-face from rot to rehab.

THE LETTERS OF ROBERT LOWELL. Edited by Saskia Hamilton. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $40.) Confessions, opinions and other people’s secrets animate these missives from a fine poet.

LINCOLN’S MELANCHOLY. By Joshua Wolf Shenk. (Houghton Mifflin, $25.) In an era before the relentless good cheer and glad-handing of modern politicians, Lincoln passed through shadows to triumph.

THE LOST PAINTING. By Jonathan Harr. (Random House, $24.95.) The adventures of Caravaggio’s ”Taking of Christ,” painted in 1602, rediscovered by scholar-hunters in 1990.

MADE IN DETROIT: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. By Paul Clemens. (Doubleday, $23.95.) Clemens (born in 1973) recalls growing up working-class white in a black city losing both people and jobs.

MAO: The Unknown Story. By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. (Knopf, $35.) A huge, meticulously researched biography that paints Chairman Mao in authentic Hitler-Stalin 20th-century hues.

MARK TWAIN: A Life. By Ron Powers. (Free Press, $35.) A wise and lively biography of an American paradox, always lively, rarely wise.

MATISSE THE MASTER: A Life of Henri Matisse. The Conquest of Color, 1909-1954. By Hilary Spurling. (Knopf, $40.) The final volume of a huge, careful study of a 20th-century wizard.

MIRROR TO AMERICA: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.)A riveting and bitterly candid memoir by a seminal African-American scholar, raised and educated in an era of stifling race prejudice.

NEW ART CITY. By Jed Perl. (Knopf, $35.) The art critic of The New Republic explores heroic Abstract Expressionism and its cool, empirical successors in New York.

NIGHT DRAWS NEAR: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War. By Anthony Shadid. (Holt, $26.) An Arabic-speaking reporter on life in the Red Zone, outside American control.

OH THE GLORY OF IT ALL. By Sean Wilsey. (Penguin Press, $25.95.) A coming-of-age memoir by a writer so skillful his account of his sufferings as a rich kid never becomes insufferable.

OMAHA BLUES: A Memory Loop. By Joseph Lelyveld. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22.) A memoir of a complicated childhood by a former executive editor of The Times.

102 MINUTES: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers. By Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. (Times Books/Holt, $26.) A skilled reconstruction by writers of The Times.

THE ORIENTALIST: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. By Tom Reiss. (Random House, $25.95.) The bold writer and impostor Lev Nussimbaum (Kurban Said) (Essad Bey) and his lives from 1905 to 1942.

OUR INNER APE: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. By Frans de Waal. (Riverhead, $24.95.) De Waal addresses the similarities between humans and their closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees.

POSTWAR: A History of Europe Since 1945. By Tony Judt. (Penguin Press, $39.95.) An inquiry into why the condition of Europe is so much better than anyone would have dared hope in 1945.

THE PRINCE OF THE CITY: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life. By Fred Siegel with Harry Siegel. (Encounter, $26.95.) Giuliani seen as the Machiavellian prophet of an alternative urban policy and as an eligible president.

THE RISE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY: Jefferson to Lincoln. By Sean Wilentz. (Norton, $35.) A clear, readable and monumental narrative work of scholarship, full of rich detail.

THE RIVER OF DOUBT: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. By Candice Millard. (Doubleday, $26.) A vibrant retelling of Roosevelt’s postelection expedition through the Rio da Dúvida; what was supposed to be a well-provisioned safari became instead a survey of an uncharted capillary of the Amazon.

1776. By David McCullough. (Simon & Schuster, $32.) A lively work that skewers Washington’s pretensions and admires citizen soldiers.

SPOOK: Science Tackles the Afterlife. By Mary Roach. (Norton, $24.95.) A diligent, cheerful account of efforts to learn whether science can show that there is (or isn’t) life after death.

THE SURVIVOR. By John F. Harris. (Random House, $29.95.) An assessment of Bill Clinton’s performance in the White House; by a reporter for The Washington Post.

A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS. By Amos Oz. (Harcourt, $26.) A memoir by the Israeli novelist, mourning the death of his mother long ago and the demise of the socialist Zion in his own time.

TEAM OF RIVALS: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. By Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Simon & Schuster, $35.) An elegant, incisive study of Lincoln through his relationships with his former political rivals turned cabinet members.

THE TENDER BAR: A Memoir. By J. R. Moehringer. (Hyperion, $23.95.) As an only child abandoned by his father, the author found an adoptive family in a Long Island bar (now defunct).

THEATRE OF FISH: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador. By John Gimlette. (Knopf, $25.) Gimlette explores the provincial psyche by journeying through the barren regions whose chief resource, fish, has departed.

TULIA: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town. By Nate Blakeslee. (PublicAffairs, $26.95.) How 38 people, mostly black, were convicted of grave drug charges on virtually no evidence but the word of a single cop.

VINDICATION: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. By Lyndall Gordon. (HarperCollins, $29.95.) A biography of the brilliant early feminist.

A WAR LIKE NO OTHER: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. By Victor Davis Hanson. (Random House, $29.95.) The fate of Athens, the superpower of its day, after it tried to export its political system to the rest of the Greek world.

WARPED PASSAGES: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. By Lisa Randall. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $27.95.) From a Harvard physicist, advanced cosmological theories for lay folk who are a bit baffled by the idea of 10 dimensions.

WITHOUT APOLOGY: Girls, Women, and the Desire to Fight. By Leah Hager Cohen. (Random House, $24.95.) Cohen thoughtfully tracks girls’ boxing till she herself is converted to pugilism.

WODEHOUSE: A Life. By Robert McCrum. (Norton, $27.95.) The prolific, industrious creator of Jeeves and oh so many dear others.

THE WORLD IS FLAT: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. By Thomas L. Friedman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.50.) The New York Times columnist maps the next phase of globalization as technological forces level the world’s economic playing field.

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. By Joan Didion. (Knopf, $23.95.) A powerful, persuasive account of the crisis of mortality after the sudden death of the author’s husband.

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