Bea said the discussion in the 16-year-old "design memo" points to the key decision that created fatal problems on the 17th Street Canal levee and could reveal a systemic problem that will show up during investigation into the London Avenue and Industrial Canal levees, which also breached during the Aug. 29 storm. "From all the data we have, from all the documents made available to us, that exchange highlights where the key mistake was made in the design process, and how it was allowed to stand," Bea said this week. "The design engineers didn't account for the weak layers in that swamp, and the Vicksburg office picks that up in review. But the New Orleans office says it's our professional judgment this is OK. In our business, that's an acceptable answer. But it's an answer Vicksburg can disagree with -- but it didn't. "And from the documents we have, the issue is never raised again. At least not until Katrina comes along."
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"It's pretty clear, looking back on it with the information we have available at this point, that Vicksburg didn't like what had been done," he said. "We'll never know why they didn't pursue it."
Tickner, now living in North Carolina, could not be reached for comment. Fred Bayley, the chief engineer in the Vicksburg office at the time, retired in 1993. Now 73, he said he doesn't remember the issue or much of the details of the project. What he remembers most about New Orleans is the challenge its tortuously weak and layered soils posed for engineers.
"Even if you took borings every 5 feet, you might not get an accurate picture of what you were dealing with down there," he said. "Everything you did down there was a risk, because of those soils."