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Levee officials admit to cursory inspections

Thursday, at a Senate hearing, federal, state and local officials admitted that inspections of the New Orleans levee system were  cursory at best. NBC's Chip Reid reports.

WASHINGTON — Not long after the flood waters began pouring into New Orleans, angry residents demanded to know — was anybody inspecting the levees before they failed?

Thursday, at a Senate hearing, federal, state and local officials said the answer is yes — but they inspected only what they could see with the naked eye.

“Our inspections are visual,” said Gerard Colletti of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “They are not subsurface types of inspections. Those subsurface are all done at the initial design and construction phase.”

Documents obtained by NBC News suggest those visual inspections were little more than long drives, followed by expensive lunches.

The itinerary for the annual low-water inspection, dated Oct. 17, 2003 (.PDF link), lists the inspection start time as 9 a.m., followed by drive after drive along miles of levees, canals and floodwalls, ending about 4 1/2 hours later at the popular Red Maple Restaurant. The tab at the Red Maple, for 39 people, came to $833, including $592 for 32 10 oz. prime ribs.

In a Nov. 29 interview with Senate staff, James Huey, former president of the Orleans Levee District, described the inspections, saying, “They normally meet and get some beignets and coffee in the morning ... and then you go do the tours and ... you have a nice lunch somewhere. They have this stop-off thing or whatever. And that's what inspections are about.”

Levee Board sources tell NBC News that some floodwalls that collapsed were not inspected at all in recent years.

Inspecting the levees is just one job of the Orleans Levee Board. It also oversees business activities, from a casino to marinas to restaurants and even a karate club.

Thursday, levee officials denied those activities distract them from their primary mission and said they thought they were doing everything they could to keep the city safe.

“Until this breach, there was no indication and I had complete faith in this levee system,” said Max Hearn with the Orleans Levee District.

Thursday, some senators accused the levee officials of failing to do their jobs. But those officials responded there's no guarantee that even rigorous inspections would have made any difference against a hurricane as powerful as Katrina.