As the 2011 hurricane season arrived, residents and businesses in Greater New Orleans could rest a little easier knowing that, for the first time ever, the city’s perimeter defenses are able to defend against a storm surge event that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year, or a 100-year storm.
According to Mike Park, chief of Task Force Hope, the forward division cell in New Orleans created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Mississippi Valley Division (MVD), and responsible for overseeing management of the $14.5 billion Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS) program, the effort by USACE, along with its partners at the local, state, and federal level, to design and build an integrated HSDRRS in less than six years, has been nothing short of monumental.
“We made a commitment to the people of the Greater New Orleans area to have a perimeter system in place that could defend against a 100-year storm, and we have met that goal,” said Park.
“It was a huge boon to this program that Congress recognized the urgency to deliver the hurricane system within a compressed time period and provided all of the funding at the front end,” added Park. “Rather than funding the project incrementally, as is the Corps’ traditional civil works process, we’ve had the flexibility that’s been afforded by having all of the dollars already in hand.”
The HSDRRS consists of 133 miles of levees, floodwalls, gates, barriers, and other structures in the five-parish (county) Greater New Orleans area. In response to the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Congress authorized and fully funded a multibillion-dollar hurricane defense system, an unprecedented action for a civil works program. USACE committed to delivering the 100-year hurricane risk-reduction system to Greater New Orleans by June 1, 2011, the first day of this year’s hurricane season.
The upfront funding by Congress has clearly been the main driver in reducing the project delivery time by up to two decades. With full funding, USACE has been able to implement multiyear contracts, rather than breaking them up into smaller incremental contracts. This allowed for bulk purchases of construction materials and packaging construction requirements into contracts valued in the hundreds of millions, attracting a great field of top-notch contractors to bid on the various projects comprising the HSDRRS.
Complete upfront funding was not the only enabler in delivering the mission in a compressed time frame. The White House Council on Environmental Quality granted USACE special permission to implement a set of alternative arrangements to meet full environmental compliance requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These NEPAalternative arrangements have allowed USACE to break up comprehensive Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) into smaller units of assessment, known as Individual Environmental Reports (IERs), which expedited the environmental compliance process and increased the number of opportunities the public would have to give input on development of the risk- reduction system. A Comprehensive Environmental Document is currently being drafted to address the cumulative impacts of all HSDRRS construction not previously documented in an IER.
“The NEPA alternative arrangements process saved us years of precontract-award activity before we could get to construction,” said Park.
USACE was also able to expedite construction by employing contractor acquisition strategies most often used for military construction, including the design-build and early contractor involvement (ECI; aka construction manager at risk) acquisition strategies. The design-build project delivery method requires the design and construction phases to be contracted out to a single design-builder, thus allowing the two phases to happen concurrently to shorten the delivery schedule of the project. ECI, meanwhile, includes the involvement of the construction contractor before the project design is completed in order to obtain the contractor’s assessment of constructability and economic market factors in the design. It also allows for successive target price adjustments as the design matures so the final construction cost can be optimized. It, too, can shorten the project delivery schedule by allowing construction to begin before designs are 100 percent complete. To date, more than 320 contracts have been awarded in association with the construction of the HSDRRS. More than $2.5 billion of those contracts were awarded to small-business contractors, many based in Louisiana.
USACE went into the steel pile business to hasten the contractors’ purchase-to-job site process. By purchasing and stockpiling steel piles, it prevented contractors from having to stand in line and compete with each other for materials.
“It accelerated the work and was more cost-effective to purchase and store the piles,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, Senior Executive Service, who served as director of Task Force Hope from February 2007 to January 2011 and now serves as the director of Contingency Operations and Office of Homeland Security at USACE Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Purchasing materials in bulk saved the Corps $50 million on the first contract alone.”
While selecting a construction contractor and making sure that the contractor had the necessary supplies was a challenge, getting the contractors to construct floodwalls and raise levees in poor soil conditions provided a whole new set of challenges. USACE and its contractors overcame these challenges by using innovative construction techniques. For example, USACE used the deep soil mixing method along a 5.7-mile-long stretch of levee that was raised in New Orleans East. Deep soil mixing involves injecting cement grout columns deep into the native soil to produce stabilized soil columns, which increase the strength of the underlying poor soil so that it can support the raised levee. Approximately 500,000 tons of cement/slag were incorporated into that stretch of levee. In total, approximately 1.7 million cubic yards of soil were treated with the deep soil mixing method to strengthen the underlying soil, making it the largest deep soil mixing project in the country and possibly the world.
Additionally, USACE installed wick drains along a separate 7.5-mile-long stretch of levee in New Orleans East to increase the rate of soil consolidation there so that it could support a higher levee embankment. More than 250,000 wick drains were placed in that stretch of levee just east of the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, making it the largest wick drain project in U.S. history. These innovative construction techniques went a long way in ensuring that these projects were delivered on time and will be sustainable into the future.
Aside from full upfront funding and the other enablers aforementioned, there is very little chance USACE could have succeeded in its mission of delivering a 100-year risk-reduction system to the Greater New Orleans area without the help of its internal and external partners.
“The mission of delivering the HSDRRS has been, and continues to be, a team effort,” said Park. “It has required a lot of hard work, determination, and close collaboration with our stakeholders and partners to get to this point.”
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the MVD, made delivery of the risk-reduction system a regional mission, wherein all six districts across the MVD had assignments associated with delivering the HSDRRS. For instance, the St. Paul District assisted with risk-reduction construction in St. Bernard Parish, and the Memphis District assisted with construction in New Orleans East.
“I’m totally convinced that without that focus of the regional team, we would never have been able to deliver this mission,” said Durham-Aguilera.
Outside of the MVD, too, many USACE districts and commands provided technical expertise for various HSDRRS components. The Northwest Division assisted with interim closure structures and permanent canal closures and pumps at the three outfall canals at the New Orleans lakefront, while the Chicago District assisted with existing interior drainage pump station repairs and storm proofing.
Externally, USACE leveraged expertise from academia and industry to design and construct a robust system. It started when Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, former chief of engineers and USACE commander, commissioned the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force shortly after Hurricane Katrina to conduct forensic investigations into how levees, floodwalls, and other structures in the Greater New Orleans area performed during the storm. The investigation team consisted of more than 150 engineers, scientists, and academics.
In addition to internal and external experts, USACE worked closely with its key local and state government stakeholders and federal partners. All USACE civil works projects require a local cost-share partner, even when the project is fully federally funded. The cost-share partner, also known as the non-federal sponsor, provides the real estate for the project.
“Without those key partners, there would literally be hundreds and hundreds of real estate actions that wouldn’t be performed,” said Durham-Aguilera. “We could not have done this program at all without the state and the levee boards working very, very hard to get the needed real estate.”
In addition, once construction of each HSDRRS project is complete, it is turned over to the local sponsor to operate and maintain. In this case, USACE will turn over the completed projects to the state of Louisiana’s Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, which oversees the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-East) and SLFPA-West and the local levee districts that comprise those authorities, as well as local levee districts not part of SLFPA-East and SLFPA-West.
“We delivered better because we’ve worked in a more collaborative environment with our non- federal sponsors,” said Park. “Their technical folks were embedded in our project delivery teams,and it’s been very positive.”
The Path Forward
Although the HSDRRS is now able to defend against a 100-year storm surge event, additional work on the system continues. A few key projects on the west bank of the Mississippi River and the east bank of St. Charles and Jefferson parishes will be complete in early 2012. The Seabrook Floodgate Complex and the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, which will work in tandem to reduce storm surge risk to some of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, will not be complete until 2012.
Beyond the attainment of the 100-year level of risk reduction, there will be other activities that will take place over the next few months and years. These activities include armoring to increase structural resiliency; construction of permanent canal closures and pump stations at the three outfall canals; system accreditation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency; environmental mitigation for all HSDRRS-related construction; interior drainage improvements through the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project; improvements to the New Orleans to Venice Hurricane Protection Project; and non-federal levees in Plaquemines Parish and future levee lifts, among others.
There are several lessons learned during the design and construction of the Greater New Orleans HSDRRS that can be implemented USACE-wide. One of the biggest lessons learned is that any water resource management or flood risk reduction project must be viewed on a system-wide level, known as the systems approach. All elements of a flood risk reduction system should be viewed as one comprehensive system with the same design criteria, rather than an assemblage of individual components.
Additional lessons learned include the value of internal and external peer review (which became law with the Water Resources Development Act of 2007); the importance of implementing a regional project and program delivery team; the value of an expeditionary task force in firing up a huge workforce in a quick time period; and the use of a risk-based program estimate.
“I believe that a lot of folks here that suffered with all other New Orleanians have really risen to the occasion and set aside their own personal issues and problems, put their shoulders to the wheel, and worked really hard to deliver the system,” said Park. The work done by USACE in New Orleans has been a true testament to the commitment of USACE, Congress, the administration, stakeholders and partners, and the men and women of Team New Orleans.
“This has been one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, but it’s been one of the most gratifying things we’ve ever done,” added Durham-Aguilera. “It’s real and it affects people’s daily lives. It helps bring back the recovery of an area that is rich in culture, resources, and contributions to the nation.”
This article first appeared in the 2011-2012 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces publication.