Roth discusses engineering failures surrounding Hurricane Katrina in AU lecture

Published: Apr 6, 2007 1:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Amy Weaver,, 334-737-2534

Source: Opelika-Auburn News

Some call Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans the worst natural disaster in United States history, but Lawrence H. Roth would rather call it the worst engineering catastrophe in U.S. history.

Roth, deputy executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, explained his stance to an auditorium of engineering students Thursday at Auburn University. The address on the levee failures was part of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series.

Roth led the ASCE's response to Hurricane Katrina and is currently serving as chief of staff and project manager for ASCE's external review panel. The panel was assembled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide an independent assessment of the performance evaluation of the New Orleans hurricane protection system.

Roth's presentation centered on the panel's findings and conclusions. He didn't point blame at any one group but did say there were a "series of questionable decisions" made by groups including the Army Corps of Engineers, whose officials pressured by federal, state and local authorities to cut costs.

"At the end of the day, there's enough blame to go around," he said.

It started in 1849, when New Orleans was a small community built along a river, below sea level.

"Remember, we are talking about a bowl here," Roth said. "Every inch of water that falls needs to be pumped out."

A Hurricane Protection System is designed to remove rain, not control the amount of water brought in by a hurricane, he said. A levee system, 350 miles long, was built over the course of 40 years. Some levees sunk over the years or were built two feet too low. Roth said ASCE engineers calculated 169 levee breaches, which increased the amount of damage to the city three times over.

Roth suggested that future engineers always consider quality and safety in their civil planning. These kind of mistakes can't happen again, even to save money, he said.

"I hope we can learn from Katrina," he said.