This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Panel of engineers looks at Katrina response

Published: March 2, 2006

Reporter Contributor

Engineering faculty members Gilberto Mosqueda and James Jensen joined members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Feb. 23 to discuss engineering preparedness and response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The panel discussion, held in the Student Union Theater, was part of Engineering Week activities at UB. (For photos of other Engineering Week activities, click on "Photos" column).

Gary Shoffstall, chief of the Emergency Management Office for the corps' Buffalo District, has responded to four recent hurricanes in Florida, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco.

"If you were to combine all of those disasters, you would not have the amount of debris, temporary housing, temporary facilities and people displaced as this one storm event with Katrina and Rita," Shoffstall said.

He cut short critics of the slow hurricane relief effort by offering statistics on the magnitude of the disaster. While the destruction of the World Trade Center created 1 million cubic yards of debris in New York, he said, hurricanes Katrina and Rita created 45 million cubic yards of debris in Mississippi alone.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tasks USACE with different elements of disaster response, Shoffstall said. USACE is divided into nine geographic regions whose divisions do not act without orders from the federal government. This avoids confusion and competition for resources, he said. The team from Buffalo, as part of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, was part of a structural safety assessment team.

Included on the team was Shanon Chader, a civil/coastal engineer in the corps' Buffalo Division and a graduate of UB's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. While in New Orleans, Chader worked and lived in a trailer parked in front of City Hall.

"We inspected more than 124,000 structures in six to eight weeks," Chader said. The worst cases were in the Ninth Ward, due to the severe flooding caused by broken levies, he said.

Shoffstall said there is no one answer as to why the levies failed. "It was a different problem at each location," he noted, adding that among the causes were underwater soil erosion, impact and overtopping.

Engineers now face the task of assessing and learning from the damage, he said.

Mosqueda, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, is affiliated with the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) at UB. He has been to the Gulf Coast twice since Katrina's landfall on Aug. 29. He led the first MCEER reconnaissance team to the Mississippi cities of Gulfport and Biloxi a mere week after Katrina hit.

"Storm surges were the largest culprit in the damage," Mosqueda said.

Shoffstall noted that storm surges pushed from one-fourth to half a mile inland. Ocean Springs, a town east of Biloxi with a pre-Katrina population of more than 17,000, was reduced to mere foundations after being hit with a "22-foot wall of water," he said.

Mosqueda said newer structures, such as the 14-floor Hancock Bank office building—the tallest structure in downtown Gulfport—sustained less damage than older buildings.

Although Katrina had weakened from a category five hurricane to a category three storm in terms of strength by the time it made landfall, its wind gusts still topped 120 mph. The windward sides of some buildings lost 30 to 80 percent of their windows. Peak gusts are more important to engineers than sustained winds, said Mosqueda. Current building codes allow for winds of up to 120 mph, but older structures were built to withstand just 100 mph winds, he said.

Mosqueda suggested that California building codes be used as a model for future building codes in hurricane-prone areas. He showed photos of three bridges over Biloxi Bay: the earthquake-resistant railroad bridge survived the storm; the others collapsed.

He pointed out, however, that there are some events that no engineer can anticipate. He then showed a photo of a five-story building with a hole knocked into it from a large casino barge that drifted inland on a storm surge.

Jensen, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, was a member of a third MCEER team that traveled to New Orleans in mid-October to investigate environmental and health issues.

New Orleans' two largest sewage treatment plants have not been repaired yet, said Jensen, adding there are concerns about the environmental impact of so much waste entering the Gulf of Mexico.

Jensen said he worked with public health volunteers in New Orleans. "One of the greatest problems was getting the word out about what services were available," he said.

Chader said his team's headquarters turned into an unofficial information center for people looking for food, water and medical care due to its location in front of City Hall.

"People come first," said Jensen, noting that it is important that engineers learn to work with the public and other agencies.

In addition, he said engineers must learn lessons from the disaster. No one can create an indestructible building, but weaknesses can be examined and designed against in the future.

"We'll now have hard facts: cost, damages, people relocated, communities destroyed," said Shoffstall. "You couldn't provide category five protection in the past because (officials) said it costs more to provide the protection than what was available." With current damage from the storm estimated at $75 billion, he said, that attitude has changed.

The region will be rebuilt, he said.

"There's a reason to be there. You're not going to keep people out," he said. "We as engineers just have to find a solution to allow them to live safely."