A Case Study in Failure

By Loftus, Margaret | ASEE Prism, November 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Case Study in Failure


Loftus, Margaret, ASEE Prism


BY THE TIME it slammed into the Gulf Coast just east of New Orleans on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina had weakened from a Category 5 storm to a Category 3, but it still had enough power to deal a catastrophic blow to the Big Easy. A 12-foot storm surge breached many of the levees, flooding 80 percent of the city and triggering one of the worst disasters in modem American history. In the end, the storm claimed 1,500 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of Gulf residents. Total damage has been estimated at some $80 billion.

Hindsight is Instructive

While the breakdown of levees may have been the linchpin of the catastrophe, the groundwork for multiple system failures - from the shrinking wetlands to bungled communication - had been laid long before the hurricane started to chum in the Atlantic. In fact, Katrina was the perfect storm of SNAFUs, making it a rich case study for the classroom. "It's important that engineering students be exposed to Katrina and other landmark failures," says Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University and author of Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design. "We leam much more from failures than successes." Today, Petroski and other engineering educators are using Katnna to teach students not only the technical aspects of flood control but how to consider the social, economic, and institutional impacts of their work.

In his freshman seminar on great projects, Petroski examines how the New Orleans levees failed and what we can learn from that. When engineers design a system, they are supposed to anticipate what can go wrong. But as seasoned engineers know all too well, hindsight is an invaluable teacher. A report released last year by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the failures of the federally built levees were largely the result of design flaws. "When a large protective system fails, there's a lot of information that can't be tested in any other way," argues Petroski. Maintenance, he adds, is an integral part of design; but in New Orleans, that was found to be inconsistent, at best.

Some levees had sunk as much as two feet in places, says Werner Loehlein, an adjunct civil engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh who works for the Army Corps of Engineers. He says Katrina shows his students how water systems are at the mercy of several government entities that maintain them. "When you have a long levee that crosses multiple communities that were built at different times, some parts may not be as solid as others."

Today, the Corps is working to shore up the city's flood protection system to withstand a 100-year storm level, a project slated for completion by 2011. But the level of protection to which the levees should be built remains controversial, with local and national politicians pushing for a system that could withstand a Category 5 hurricane, a level that could be expected once every 170 years. Robert Houghtalen, the head of the department of civil engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology uses this case to introduce the concept of a cost-benefit ratio, as even engineering students have a hard time understanding why the levees weren't designed for the worst-case scenario in the first place. "When you build a project like this, you don't protect people at the highest level of storm," Houghtalen explains. "Designs are based on the probability of failure." Adds Loehlein, "You can't build for Armageddon."

The Big Picture

For Alex Mayer, the director of the Center for Water and Society at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., Katrina is a perfect example of the ways in which water impacts society and vice versa, from the formation of deltas to soil mechanics to climate change. His students are assigned John McPhee's book, The Control of Nature, for background on how and why the Mississippi River has been manipulated, ultimately carving out a city below sea-level. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

A Case Study in Failure
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.