updated 2/28/2008 7:55:33 PM ET 2008-02-29T00:55:33

The Army Corps of Engineers is taking much too long to complete a study that could let victims of Hurricane Katrina know their risk of facing another devastating flood, an independent research group said Thursday.

The National Research Council also questioned methods used and criticized errors in the draft of the block-by-block analysis of future flood risk in New Orleans.

"These issues are critical to the ability of residents and businesses to obtain financing and insurance for rebuilding in the area and for making decisions about the safety of living in New Orleans in the future," the council said in its interim review of the risk study being done by the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force.

IPET is a commission put together by the corps to study failures of flood protection following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It has already put out seven volumes of studies on the New Orleans levee system and is working on the eighth. The whole report was supposed to be done on June 1, 2006.

The director of IPET, Ed Link, stressed on Thursday that the emphasis is on getting the work done right and that the study is still in the draft stage.

"It was an interim draft, it had not received a thorough edit; we were by no means at a point when we felt we had a complete document," Link said.

The federal government has asked the NRC to review the IPET report. In its assessment of an interim version of the eighth volume, it called on the corps to "infuse this effort with the resources necessary" to get the final version done quickly.

Urgency is vital in completing the risk segment because it identifies work needed to fulfill congressional mandates to build a more protective levee system for New Orleans, and identifies potential weak spots in current flood protection; other levee projects cannot move forward without it, NRC said.

"The intense effort that resulted in volumes 1-7 of the IPET report has subsided such that the Volume VIII risk and reliability study has taken more than twice the length of time for the rest of the study, and remains incomplete," NRC said.

Projected flood maps
So far, the biggest tool derived from the risk study are maps that show the likelihood of flooding and its severity over the next 100 years.

The maps, released in June, painted a rosy picture for some parts of New Orleans. Critics said issuing the maps without supporting data was a public relations stunt.

Link, a University of Maryland research engineer, stands by the maps. "They are good maps. They are the best estimates we can make given the data we have," he said.

Bob Bea, a University of California at Berkeley engineer deeply involved in studying New Orleans' levee system, disagrees. "The risks of flooding have been dramatically underestimated," Bea said.

He said IPET is underestimating the ferocity of future hurricanes, which likely will be made worse by global warming, and overestimating the strength of corps-built defenses.

"All of this leads to a recognition that this information does not provide the public, governments, or commerce — industry decision-makers — with valid information to consider risks and alternatives to mitigate those risks," Bea said.

After Katrina, which struck Aug. 29, 2005, and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, the corps dumped billions of dollars into research and flood-project construction.

So far, the IPET study has cost about $25 million. The corps recently committed an additional $250,000 to complete the risk study.

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