Collapsed floodwall, New Orleans
Collapsed floodwall, New Orleans

Some New Orleans residents are questioning whether the millions spent to repair levees and floodwalls in the wake of 2005’s devastation from Hurricane Katrina has made their city any safer after a witness to the recent construction revealed expansion joints between floodwall panels had been filled with newspaper instead of the rubber foam called for in the project’s specifications.

New Orleans CBS affiliate WWL-TV visited a section of floodwall in St. Bernard Parish with a resident who asked not to be identified and who showed the news crew a section of floodwall where he had observed the contractor filling the openings between the walls with newspaper during repairs in 2006.

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

Because the concrete in the floodwall expands and contracts with temperature and humidity, the barrier is made of many separate panels, each separated by a half-inch gap, to prevent cracking and buckling.

The gap, or expansion joint, is filled with a series of barriers to prevent water from passing through. The primary barrier is the “waterstop,” a thin piece of rubber that runs from top to bottom between two panels and is anchored in the concrete foundation. On both sides of the waterstop is a rubber foam material that fills the gap out to the surface of the floodwall. Finally, a third material covers and seals the gap on both sides of the floodwall.

In the section of St. Bernard Parish floodwall, the work crews used newspaper for the second rubber foam barrier. WWL-TV cameras even captured the date May 21, 2006, on a page of the Parade magazine from the Times-Picayune.

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

He went on to say he had confronted the contractor who blamed Washington for the way the job was being done.

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

The $2 million contract to raise and repair the floodwall section refers to “field molded sealants” at least four times, the same sponge rubber material that should have been used to fill the cavity in the expansion joints. According to New Orleans engineer Subhash Kulkarni, the rubber material was contractually required for the repair project.

Workers examining sand boil at floodwall expansion joint
Sand boil at floodwall expansion joint, New Orleans

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

“I cannot even comprehend that somebody would stuff some newspaper in there. They should have done a better job than what you see here.”

While Kulkarni said the newspaper did not present an immediate risk, over time it could lead to a weakening of the waterstop because the rubber foam is not there to keep foreign objects out.

“It could be very serious,” he 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.”

Corps spokesman Kevin Wagner dismissed Kulkarni’s concerns.

“If you look at the repairs we made to the joints, there’s not really a safety issue with the joints at all,” said Wagner.

When asked if there was any shoddy work involved, Wagner said, “I don’t think so at all.”

Yesterday, representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers held a news conference beside the 15-foot Harvey Canal flood wall to clarify the agency’s repair procedures to keep water from seeping through the expansion joints.

Saying the use of newspaper instead of rubber foam was only a “temporary solution” applied in three panel gaps, Maj. Timothy Kurgan, chief public affairs officer for the Corps’ New Orleans district, acknowledged that it was “not the preferred technique.”

“You had a lot of work being done to get things up to snuff after Hurricane Katrina. I don’t want people thinking there’s just a bunch of newspaper inside this wall, and that’s the only thing keeping water out,” he told the Times-Picayune.

Kurgan also disputed the claim that a contractor had put in the newspaper filling, saying the work was done by Corps employees.

“It’s an indictment against the quality of work being done,” said St. Bernard parish president Craig Taffaro.

“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.”

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