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Thursday, November 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Builders may have skimped on levees, walls

WASHINGTON — Investigators Wednesday added a possible new explanation for some of the flooding that devastated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: deliberate misconduct by contractors who may have skimped on construction materials in building the city's floodwalls and levees.

Experts investigating the cause of the flooding have received at least a dozen allegations of serious cheating by builders and possibly others involved in levee construction, two investigators said in testimony before a Senate panel. They said these were potentially criminal acts that may have contributed to the collapse of the city's flood-control system Aug. 29.

The list of alleged misdeeds includes the use of weak, poorly compacted soils in levee construction and deliberate skimping on steel pilings used to anchor floodwalls.

"What we have right now are stories of malfeasance and some field evidence that seems to correlate with those stories," said Raymond Seed, leader of one of three independent teams of experts investigating why the levees failed. Seed, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said it is not clear how big a role such acts ultimately played in the failure of the levees.

The reports emerged from one of two Senate hearings held Wednesday to examine why New Orleans' levee system failed so spectacularly, and how it might be rebuilt to prevent catastrophic flooding when the next hurricane hits.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin asked President Bush and Congress to commit the nation to rebuilding his city's levee system to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, calling it a necessary precondition to winning back workers and businesses. The existing 200-mile system was designed to withstand a Category 3 storm.

The levees were designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and built primarily by contractors hired by the Corps. The Corps has launched its own investigation of the levee failures and is cooperating with the independent investigations by the state of Louisiana, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the University of California team funded by the National Science Foundation.

Leaders of the three teams Wednesday presented preliminary findings to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. Recent findings by the independent investigators have pointed increasingly to human error — flaws in design, construction, or both — as a likely culprit in the breaches of two key floodwalls along Lake Pontchartrain.

Meanwhile, officials responsible for doling out billions in Katrina relief told House lawmakers Wednesday that they still don't have answers to central questions about why certain recovery efforts have stalled, whether money is being wasted and what's keeping Gulf Coast firms from getting a bigger share of the work.

In nearly three hours of questioning by the House committee investigating the government's sluggish response, top procurement officials with the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers repeatedly said they would need to do more research into exactly how taxpayer money is being spent.

Lawmakers made clear they didn't like that answer.

Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., asked about news reports that the government was paying a contractor more than $2,500 for two hours of work installing a tarp on a damaged roof. "Doesn't it just ring a bell with someone that this is an excessive amount of money?" she asked.

The federal government has allocated more than $60 billion for Katrina relief, and more is expected.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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