SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 5, 2012

Salem firm helped design New Orleans levee system

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — For the first time during Hurricane Isaac, the $15 billion “Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System,” as the massive system of levees, flood walls, surge barriers and control gates is called, was put to the test.

While there was flooding in Plaquemines Parish last week, the system put in place by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers passed the test. Bioengineering Group, headquartered in Salem, along with a joint venture partner, ARCADIS, were at the forefront of evaluating, designing, and providing construction management and environmental compliance services for what was the single largest civil works projects in the country, according to an article CEO Wendi Goldsmith helped write for the publication The Military Engineer.

Goldsmith said the systems put in place in New Orleans use man-made and natural systems to lessen storm and flood damage, but they had never been put to the test before Hurricane Isaac lumbered ashore on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina last week.

Goldsmith spoke about her reaction to how New Orleans fared, with news that the federal system held, while levees in Plaquemines Parish did not. Goldsmith said it wasn’t only the design and the scale of the New Orleans project that was unprecedented, but the way in which various entities came together to design and build the system.

“This is not done alone,” Goldsmith said, “certainly not done by me. It involved many dedicated and talented team members from the firm, as well as the numerous other engineering companies and government representatives who worked in collaboration to an unprecedented level.” Many of those guiding this project are women, Goldsmith noted.

What was the reaction among those who built the storm systems in New Orleans to Hurricane Isaac?

We didn’t break a sweat about this. ... Because to us, we feel we’ve been involved in the planning, in the engineering, in the environmental process of what had been a multibillion sculpture that didn’t do anything yet ... Now we are over what we consider the finish line, the part that we show the system is functioning.

What have you heard about the functioning of the systems in New Orleans?

Where the levees were part of the whole integrated plan ... there has not been anything related to a moment of trouble.

You say no system could control all the flooding and that people living in the area should not be lulled into a false sense of security.

The Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System — it’s a big mouthful — no one should think that anyone can build infrastructure to make you safe. ... You are still supposed to evacuate, you are still supposed to batten down the hatches. The fact that the Plaquemines levee failed shows this was not a wimpy storm.

There are reports that the system did the job and protected New Orleans from much of the storm surge.

This actually highlights that a comprehensive system works very well and had plenty of capacity to spare.

Have you been in touch with anyone from New Orleans?

I’ve had a lot of informal contact to and from a lot of people (including those in the Army Corps of Engineers and those who were part of the design team). While we didn’t want to be presumptuous, we also get to experience the satisfaction of a job well done. ... We are always open-minded to improve for future programs.

What are the lessons learned in planning to protect coastal areas from storm surges?

In general, you need to understand sea-level rise, you need to understand how land in your area has shifted and settled. (It’s not enough to use rainfall data from the past to predict future rainfall or storm events, Goldsmith says). We know that data from the past is not the data from the recent past. ... We have every understanding that the data from the future will be different. ... The post-Katrina infrastructure for greater New Orleans is the first time major comprehensive infrastructure was built with risk and uncertainty factors for climate change and related issues as part of the scenario analysis and contingency planning process.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.