Video: Flooding: Round 2

By MSNBC anchor
updated 9/22/2005 12:25:05 PM ET 2005-09-22T16:25:05

Was it an act of God or an act of graft? 

Scientists and engineers in New Orleans are now convinced storm surges three weeks ago were far less than reported and did not come close to overtopping the city's flood walls.  They say it was a combination of faulty design and shoddy construction that caused the barriers to breach, flooding the city. 

The Army Corps of Engineers has not identified the contractors who built the floodgates, but has already promised an investigation. 

"My people want to know as bad as everyone else, because they're locals," said Col. Richard Wagenaar of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers. "They designed and they were built here.  And so, so they want to know what happened to these walls just as bad as everyone else." 

Louisiana has a long tradition of corruption and inefficiency.  And according to Jim Bernazzani, a former FBI agent who worked in New Orleans, everything that went wrong in New Orleans should be suspect. 

Video: Livingston responds

"What we do have here, unfortunately, is a target-rich environment relative to select individuals who would abuse their office for personal profit," Bernazzani said. "Within the FBI, New Orleans ranks 19th in size, but we are third in public corruption convictions."

When it comes to flood control projects, Congress determines the priorities in spending and the Corps oversees design and construction. 

For years, engineers argued the New Orleans levees were not strong enough to withstand a powerful hurricane, and some political analysts say that, regardless of any graft or design flaws, Louisiana's former representatives in Congress, like Bob Livingston, former chair of the House Appropriations committee, deserve some of the blame. 

"This wasn't a matter of corruption so much, as just misplaced priorities and a congressional delegation that was answering to what their constituents wanted, rather than what their constituents really needed," said Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of 'The Cook Political Report.'

Now, with the levees in horrible shape, and according to engineers in New Orleans, the city needs every hurricane over the rest of the season to stay far away. Otherwise, the city could be swamped again. The marshes that provided a natural barrier to the south and east have largely been erased.  And while engineers scramble to repair the New Orleans flood walls, even a minor storm, could put those manmade barriers in jeopardy. 

"The biggest concern is the surge," Wagenaar said. "We can handle about six inches of rainfall and we think the pumps can generally keep up with that, but it is the surge."

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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