September 4, 2008

Louisiana Floodwalls Stuffed With Newspaper?

Lee Zurik / WWL-TV News Anchor
wwltv.com

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“It blows my mind.”

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Those are the words St. Bernard parish president Craig Taffaro used to watch videotape Eyewitness News showed him, of floodwalls built to protect his parish.

“That should be criminal,” Taffaro continues.

What he's talking about was witnessed by a St. Bernard Parish resident who didn't want to be identified, but did have sharp criticism of the work done by a contractor hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It's like putting a Band-Aid on the hole of a gas tank of an airplane,” the resident said.

Instead of an airplane, it's a floodwall, and instead of a Band-Aid, the witness says two years ago, he saw the contractor filling the expansion joint or opening between the floodwalls with newspaper.

“The whole length of the wall was stuffed with newspaper.”

And when he confronted the contractor, the contractor blamed Washington for the substandard work.

“He basically told me when Congress sent down the money, it would be repaired the proper way.”

But during a recent trip to the area, two years later, it was apparent that didn't happen. Much of the newspaper had deteriorated or been eaten by bugs, but some still remained. In fact WWL cameras even captured the date May 21, 2006, on a page of the Parade magazine from the Times-Picayune.

Eyewitness News asked local engineer Subhash Kulkarni to investigate the findings at the floodwall.

“They should have done a better job than what you see here.”

Kulkarni is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The ASCE named him outstanding civil engineer in Louisiana back in 2003.

“I cannot even comprehend that somebody would stuff some newspaper in there.”

Engineers tell Eyewitness News an expansion joint has three lines of defense. The first is an elastic strip that helps keep water out. In the middle is the most important part, a waterstop, which is in fact included in the St. Bernard floodwall. However what is missing is a rubber joint that goes in between and helps keep foreign objects out.

The witness who talked to Eyewitness News says the contractor used the newspaper in place of the rubber joint. Kulkarni says it's not a short term risk, but over time that missing rubber joint could weaken that waterstop.

“It could be very serious,” Kulkarni said. “It doesn't take a lot of stress to cause the failure of these floodwalls. We don't know after two or three years how the main joint will perform. This is the first line of defense.”

But the Army Corps of Engineers says it is confident the floodwall will sufficiently defend residents of St. Bernard and the Ninth Ward.

“If you look at the repairs we made to the joints, there's not really a safety issue with the joints at all,” said Kevin Wagner with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps also says it’s satisfied with the quality of work done by its contractor. When asked by WWL if there was any shoddy work involved, Wagner said, “I don't think so at all.”

But days before that interview, after a request by Eyewitness News , another Corps employee e-mailed the Corps’ standards for expansion joint construction and in that e-mail, the Corps employee describes the specific materials needed as "sponge rubber" that goes next to the waterstop. That’s the same spot where a witness saw a contractor stuffing newspaper back in 2006.

When asked if the absence of material behind the waterstop was what was called for in the contract, Corps spokesman Kevin Wagner called the project an emergency repair.

“If we would have built a new floodwall that would not have been the case. We would have the waterstop, some joint filler material in between and then we would put an elastic sealer over the top of it,” Wagner said. “In this case we tried to do the repairs as quick as possible to protect the water stop before the start of hurricane season.”

But according to the contract obtained by Eyewitness News, that may not be the case. The contract calls for Ercon Corporation, based in Lafayette, Louisiana, to do the almost $2 million of work to raise and repair the floodwall under the Paris Road bridge.

In the contract, WWL found at least four mentions of field molded sealants. Kulkarni says that is the sponge rubber material to fill the cavity in the expansion joint. And he says the contract shows the rubber material was contractually required to be installed.

“I would say they have not met their obligation to install the joint correctly. They haven't installed it at all,” Kulkarni said.

Eyewitness News contacted the president of Ercon Corporation by phone and e-mail. He didn't respond to our repeated requests for a comment on this story. Further, our investigation revealed Ercon Corporation is not even licensed by the state's board for contractors. The Corps of Engineers says as long as the federal government pays for the work, it does not prevent them from hiring an unlicensed Louisiana company.

“If you're telling me this is an out of town contractor who drives back to wherever they're from and puts their head on the pillow at night, does it really matter to them that this particular part of the project fails?” St. Bernard president Craig Taffaro asks.

Taffaro calls the response from the Corps and Contractor unacceptable.

“Would they let a contractor put Play-Doh in the place of mortar when they put bricks on their house? No, I don't think so,” Taffaro said.

He says while newspaper doesn't define the entire levee system, it does have him concerned about the oversight of all work being done in southeast Louisiana.

“It's an indictment against the quality of work being done,” Taffaro says. “Let’s hope that same standard wasn't being used in constructing the floodwall in constructing the levees.”

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