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By Robert L. Reid



04/07 Feat 1

Portrait by Richard Sexton
“Learning the ways of government is key” to success in his new role as the president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East, says Thomas L. Jackson, P.E., D.WRE, F.ASCE. Jackson, a former ASCE president who retired from dmjm Harris in early 2006 as a senior vice president and the firm’s chief engineer, also stresses the need for his organization to establish a “full partnership” with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for future work on the New Orleans flood control system. Jackson is shown here near the Corps’s project to construct a closure gate for the 17th Street Canal, the site of one of the breaches that flooded the city in August 2005.


Thomas L. Jackson, a past president of ASCE, has taken on a new presidential role—leading one of the two new “super levee boards” in New Orleans that have been designed to replace a fragmented system based on political patronage with a consolidated approach focused on technical expertise in flood control.


The flooding of more than 80 percent of New Orleans in August and September 2005 that resulted when levees and floodwalls failed during the hurricanes Katrina and Rita also washed away the city’s fragmented system of multiple levee boards that had long been run mostly by political appointees with little knowledge of modern flood protection practices. In place of the levee boards, the State of Louisiana proposed an amendment to its constitution that would create two new flood protection authorities for the New Orleans area—the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E), which has jurisdiction over the former levee districts and certain other regions on the east side of the Mississippi, and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–West (SLFPA-W), which has jurisdiction over a former levee district and part of another district on the west side of the Mississippi. The amendment was overwhelmingly approved by Louisiana voters on September 30, 2006.

The amendment also mandated that the new regional authorities be staffed by engineers and scientists, including at least one civil engineer and one person who is a hydrologist or geologist. In January of this year the SLFPA-E held its first meetings and elected as its president a past president of ASCE, Thomas L. Jackson, P.E., D.WRE, F.ASCE, who retired from dmjm Harris in early 2006 as the firm’s chief engineer and a senior vice president. Jackson, a resident of Metairie, Louisiana—a New Orleans suburb—had to evacuate his own home temporarily because of Hurricane Katrina. He also delayed his retirement from September 2005 until February 2006 to help DMJM Harris relocate its New Orleans employees to an office in Baton Rouge and to lend a hand in rescuing equipment and files from the firm’s New Orleans office, located across from the Louisiana Superdome.

Because of his knowledge of the area and his expertise in flood control, Jackson served on ASCE’s External Review Panel (ERP), which is peer-reviewing the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET), the body that has been investigating the failure of the hurricane protection system in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Although the ERP is not expected to finish its work until this summer, Jackson’s involvement concluded last summer, prior to his appointment to the SLFPA-E.

Louisiana’s governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, describes Jackson’s involvement in the ERP as a factor that went far in making him the logical choice to be the SLFPA-E’s president. “It gave him extra credentials,” Blanco notes. “He has personally involved himself in the nuances of our problems, and I think that has been extremely important.”

David Daniel, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, the president of the University of Texas at Dallas and the chair of the ERP, adds that Jackson’s appointment “is exactly the sort of thing we had in mind” last August when the ERP published the report Hurricane Katrina: One Year Later. What Must We Do Next? That document recommended 10 measures, one of which read as follows: “Local, state, and federal leaders should agree to assign to a single individual the responsibility for managing critical hurricane and flood protection systems such as the one in the New Orleans area.” It also recommended that “the ‘person-in-charge’ or ‘commissioner’ be a high-level, licensed engineer (or alternatively, a panel comprising licensed engineers).”

Daniel describes Jackson as “an engineer’s engineer” because of the latter’s honest, straightforward approach to issues and his willingness to speak his mind. Yet Jackson was also willing to listen to the views of others on the ERP, a trait that should serve him well in his new position, Daniel expects. From Daniel’s own experience as the president of a public university, the ability to listen to others is of cardinal importance in any position that requires its occupant to work productively and harmoniously with the general public as well as with numerous public bodies.

In his new position, Jackson, who served as ASCE’s president in 2003, is also fulfilling the goal of ASCE Policy 416, which “encourages the selection and appointment of qualified professional engineers to government positions requiring professional engineering knowledge for operational or management decisions.” Last reaffirmed in May 2004, the policy notes that there “are many positions in government that require an individual to oversee design, construction, and/or maintenance of engineering structures or projects. Often these positions involve supervision of engineering professionals. The public interest is best served when these positions are filled by those who understand the implications of engineering decisions on the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and on life cycle costs.”

It was a lesson that New Orleans learned the proverbial hard way.

The levee district boards—some dating back to the 19th century—had been charged with the oversight and maintenance of a levee and floodwall system that was designed and constructed by the Corps and its contractors. Although much of the blame for the flooding has focused on errors in the Corps’s design of various elements of the New Orleans hurricane protection system, the local levee boards too were severely criticized.

In particular, the board of the Orleans Levee District, which was responsible for maintaining the levees and floodwalls in most of Greater New Orleans, was accused of losing touch with its flood protection mission because over the years it had acquired two marinas, an airport, a casino, and other assets unrelated to flood protection. During a December 15, 2005, hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Senator Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), the committee chair, expressed dismay that the board of commissioners of that levee district seemed to spend more time in their meetings discussing commercial enterprises, including leases to a karate business and a beauty shop, than overseeing flood control projects.

James P. Huey, who was the president of the Orleans Levee District’s board of commissioners when Katrina struck but has since resigned, admitted to Collins that he had not known his board was supposed to inspect the levees at least once every 90 days and only learned of this federal requirement when informed of it by the Senate committee’s staff.
At the same hearing, Colonel Richard Wagenaar, the Corps’s engineer for its New Orleans district, recalled the “chaotic” days after Hurricane Katrina when a “turf war” broke out between different levee districts over which party should attempt certain repairs at the 17th Street Canal, which is located at the border between the Orleans Levee District and the East Jefferson Levee District. In one case, a local contractor for the West Jefferson Levee District, which also was attempting repairs in the area, physically obstructed the Corps from attempting to work on a particular breach, reported Wagenaar.



Consolidated Levee Districts in and around New Orleans

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The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development


To enable the levee districts to focus exclusively on flood control issues, the State of Louisiana first worked to consolidate New Orleans’s existing levee districts with newly created districts in nearby parishes. An initial plan for a single “super levee district” proposed by Walter J. Boasso, a state senator whose district includes the parishes that border New Orleans on the east and to the south, was later altered by the Louisiana legislature to create two new entities:

  • The SLFPA-E, consisting of the part of the Orleans Levee District on the east side of the Mississippi, the East Jefferson Levee District, the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District, and the newly created levee districts in the parishes of St. Tammany and Tangipahoa, as well as hurricane protection projects along Lake Pontchartrain in the parishes of St. Charles and St. John the Baptist;
  • The SLFPA-W, consisting of the West Jefferson Levee District and the part of the Orleans Levee District on the west side of the Mississippi.

Blanco explains that the citizens who will now be represented by the SLFPA-W were concerned that their flood control issues might not be addressed adequately if they were part of a single authority that included the most heavily damaged sections of Greater New Orleans, which are on the east side of the Mississippi. So their legislators successfully fought to establish the regions on the west side as a separate authority, although Blanco and others suggest that the two authorities might someday merge.

In addition to consolidating the New Orleans levee districts, the state also worked to establish new technical qualifications for the people charged with overseeing and maintaining the flood protection system.

The members of the old levee district boards had generally been nominated by state legislators in a system of political patronage. Although it had been considered an honor to serve on the boards, there was no requirement that the persons chosen possess technical expertise in flood control. But “after the catastrophe of 2005 . . . it was a time for demanding change and for professionals to serve,” Blanco says. “When we decided to reorganize [the boards], we decided we wanted people with certain kinds of professional credentials,” she adds.

Instead of being named by politicians, the people who serve as commissioners on the new authorities are proposed to the governor by the Nominating Committee for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, which includes representatives from ASCE, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Society of Professional Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Association of State Floodplain Managers, and the engineering schools of major colleges and universities in New Orleans.

Civil engineers in particular are needed to serve on the authorities, Blanco says. But because of the possibility of conflicts of interest, an engineer will have to relinquish any position he or she holds with a firm that does business with the new authorities, especially an engineering firm that works on flood protection projects within the jurisdiction of the SLFPA-E or the SLFPA-W.

“We had to get people who were willing to serve the greater good,” Blanco explains. “So that’s my compliment to Tom Jackson” and to the other members of the two new authorities, the governor says.

To avoid any appearance of impropriety, for example, Jackson has turned down offers of consulting work that involved either the Corps or his former firm. He also did not attend a meeting in Washington, D.C., this February that honored the ERP members for their work in overseeing the IPET’s investigations.

The other members of the SLFPA-E are as follows:

  • Dave P. Barnes, Jr., of St. Tammany Parish, a retired television news meteorologist and a member of the American Meteorological Society; 
  • John M. Barry, of New Orleans and Washington, D.C., the author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (Simon & Schuster, 1998); 
  • Timothy P. Doody, a certified public accountant and the executive director of the law firm Chaffe McCall, L.L.P., of New Orleans;
  • Stradford A. Goins, a civil engineering consultant from Poplarville, Mississippi; 
  • George Losonsky, Ph.D., a geologist and hydrogeologist and the owner of the consulting firm Losonsky & Associates, Inc., of Baton Rouge; 
  • Larry A. McKee, P.E., F.ASCE, a retired civil engineer from Baton Rouge; 
  • Ricardo S. Pineda, P.E., the chief of the floodplain management branch of California’s Department of Water Resources; 
  • Sara L. St. Vincent, of St. Charles Parish, a process engineer with Shell Oil Company in Norco, Louisiana; 
  • Abril B. Sutherland, of St. John the Baptist Parish, an attorney with the Broussard-Baloney Law Firm, apc, of Garyville, Louisiana; 
  • Louis E. Wittie, of Tangipahoa Parish, the chief engineer of Barber Brothers Contracting Company, Inc., headquartered in Baton Rouge.

The members of the SLFPA-W are as follows:

  • David J. Bindewald, Sr., a mechanical engineer and the president of Tiveldadty, L.L.C., in Harvey, Louisiana (elected president of the SLFPA-W in February); 
  • Robert E. Howson, of New Orleans, the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Houston-based McDermott International, Inc.;
  • Kerwin E. Julien, Sr., P.E., A.M.ASCE, the president of Julien Engineering & Consulting, Inc., in New Orleans;
  • Susan H. Maclay, of Harvey, Louisiana, the executive director of the New Orleans–based Louisiana Museum Foundation;
  • Michael L. Merritt, the president and principal geologist of gem Consulting Ltd., of Baton Rouge;
  • Mark L. Morgan, P.E., A.M.ASCE, the president of sems, Inc., in Baton Rouge;
  • Joannes J.A. Westerink, Ph.D., a professor of civil engineering, geological sciences, and mathematics at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the IPET.

Jackson is currently serving a one-year term as the SLFPA-E’s president and is eligible for election to two subsequent four-year terms. (The members of the SLFPA-E drew lots to determine the length of their initial terms so that service would be staggered.) At 67, however, Jackson says he is unlikely to serve two more full terms. Authority members are paid no salary and receive only a per diem amount based on the number of meetings.

William F. Marcuson III, Ph.D., P.E., Hon.M.ASCE, the current president of ASCE, notes that engineers who are placed in leadership positions need more than just technical expertise to succeed. They also must be good at resolving conflicts, negotiating, and communicating—skills that engineers generally do not acquire as part of a civil engineering curriculum but rather obtain through direct experience during their careers, Marcuson says.
Jackson’s years with dmjm Harris and his service as ASCE’s president were certainly good learning experiences in that regard, Marcuson notes. In fact, Jackson even helped find and hire ASCE’s current executive director, Patrick J. Natale, P.E., F.ASCE, an experience that should be useful in meeting one of his first goals at the SLFPA-E, namely, finding an executive director to carry out the day-to-day management of the consolidated levee districts.

Blanco has told the new authorities to focus on “flood control, flood control, flood control!” To realize that goal and avoid the distractions that plagued the Orleans Levee District, the SLFPA-E is dividing its staff, equipment, and other resources into two (flood and nonflood) categories and will concern itself solely with flood control. All assets of the levee districts that are not directly related to flood protection are being transferred to the state’s Division of Administration.

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Any revenue generated by the Orleans Levee District’s commercial assets will continue to be used for flood control in that district, Jackson adds. Under    the terms of the amendment approved last September, the old levee boards were abolished. However, the geographical boundaries of the levee districts remain intact, and any revenue generated by property taxes or from other sources within a particular levee district may be spent only on projects within that district. The SLFPA-E can, however, consolidate staff positions and departments to achieve economies of scale in managing the combined districts, Jackson notes.

Jackson was a bit surprised that he essentially had to start from scratch in setting up the SLFPA-E and that his tasks ranged from hiring a staff to starting a checking account for the authority’s bills. The authority does not yet have a permanent office; instead, it works on a rotating basis from various offices or in other facilities of the former levee boards. In a New Orleans that is still rebuilding, this arrangement means that the authority sometimes meets in a location with no working land phone lines and thus cannot set up a conference call to include Ricardo Pineda, the SLFPA-E member who lives in California. Pineda can attend only the authority’s monthly meetings in New Orleans; he cannot participate in the daily or weekly discussions, Jackson notes.

The transition from years of work as a consultant in the private sector to operating in the public sector also has been challenging for Jackson. For example, the legislation that created the authorities expressly bars government employees—even employees of the state’s public universities—from serving as members. Thus, Jackson and his SLFPA-E colleagues lack experience in such areas as conforming to the state’s rules on spending public money, holding open meetings, and hiring employees in accordance with the civil service laws.

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“In the consulting business, if I needed something I’d tell someone in the office to order such and such, get the invoice, and write the check,” Jackson notes.    “But it’s totally different when you’re dealing with a public agency like this, so learning the ways of government is key.”

John W. Keys III, P.E., D.WRE, F.ASCE, who retired last year after five years as the commissioner of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, agrees that coping with the “red tape” of government service can be a challenge for engineers, but he stresses that it cannot be avoided. “You can say, ‘Oh, God, I hate that paperwork!’ but you have got to do it,” Keys says. “You just have to pay attention to those rules and regulations and details.”

It is also important to recognize that while every government agency has a mission, those missions often appear to be different. “You have to recognize the different missions of those agencies to see what they bring to the table, what they can and can’t do for you,” Keys adds.

Jackson estimates that he is spending 50 to 60 hours a week on SLFPA-E projects, a workload he could never have attempted if he were not already retired, he says. But 75 percent of that work involves managerial functions—the authority having jurisdiction over some 300 employees and the numerous buildings and equipment of the levee districts—and only 25 percent is spent on the technical work of flood protection.

He hopes to reverse that ratio sometime this summer after he has hired the aforementioned executive director. Then Jackson plans to concentrate on the technical issues, beginning with the need to restore the city’s flood protection system to the levels that were originally authorized by Congress before Katrina struck, essentially protection against a fast-moving storm of category 3, he explains. Eventually, the system should also be enhanced to provide protection against a hurricane of category 5, although that work is years from completion, he realizes.

That higher level of protection is the primary focus of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (cpra), which was created by the same amendment that established the SLFPA-E and the SLFPA-W, notes Jackson. Sidney Coffee, the chair of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, explains that while the cpra will ultimately be responsible for the decisions made by the two levee authorities (as well as by other levee boards outside of New Orleans), it will not be involved in the daily operations of the New Orleans flood protection system.

Instead, the cpra was established to meet a congressional mandate that Louisiana establish “a single state or quasi-state entity to act as the local sponsor for the construction, operation, and maintenance of all the hurricane, storm, damage reduction and flood control projects in the greater New Orleans and southeast Louisiana area,” according to H.R. 2863 (Department of Defense, Emergency Supplemental Appropriations to Address Hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and Pandemic Influenza Act, 2006), which became law in December 2005.

The cpra’s own engineers and scientists—from Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development and Department of Natural Resources—are carrying out work that is being peer-reviewed by national and international teams. The master plan they are developing will for the first time integrate hurricane protection with coastal restoration in the New Orleans area and along Louisiana’s coastline, says Coffee.

Both the SLFPA-E and the SLFPA-W are represented on the cpra; Jackson himself is attending the cpra meetings. Although much of the early work on the master plan was concluded before he came on board, Jackson says that the SLFPA-E will definitely be providing input in the future.

A final draft of the master plan must be submitted to the Louisiana legislature for approval by April 30. The state’s master plan is being developed simultaneously with a coastal restoration plan that the Corps must submit to Congress by this December. At the first cpra meeting he attended, Jackson says, he asked for and received an assurance that the cpra and the Corps would coordinate their efforts in developing their coastal restoration plans; the two groups have even designated members to sit on each other’s planning teams. “I didn’t want us to end up spending lots of time and the taxpayers’ money on a state plan and then have the Corps come up with something completely different,” he stresses.

Although the Corps remains in charge of designing and constructing the New Orleans levees and floodwalls, the technical experts who sit on the new levee authorities will be able to examine and critique the Corps’s plans, explains Boasso. “So when there are projects that the Corps wants to do, at least we have the same comparison—engineers, hydrologists, geotechnical experts—on the public-sector side to question whether or not [the Corps’s plan] is a good idea,” Boasso says. “At least we’ll have someone who understands that language and can either dispute it or agree with it.”

Jackson has already begun the work of establishing a close relationship with the Corps. He has met personally with John Paul Woodley, Jr., the assistant secretary of the army for civil works, Major General Donald Riley, P.E., M.ASCE, the Corps’s director of civil works, and Colonel Jeffrey A. Bedey, the commander of the Corps’s hurricane protection office, to discuss a “full partnership” with the Corps that would allow levee authority engineers to participate in all stages of hurricane protection work planning—“right down to the details of the design,” Jackson notes. 

Woodley told Civil Engineering that he concurs with Jackson’s idea of a partnership, adding that he would like to see levee authority engineers as fully participating members of the project delivery team for the Corps’s projects in New Orleans. Woodley also praises the selection of a civil engineer to head the SLFPA-E and is delighted that Jackson has been elected president of that body, seeing it as something that “everybody really applauds. . . . It’s really the type of thing we need to build public confidence in this system.”

Ending the balkanization of the old levee boards also helps, although the Corps would prefer to deal with a single flood protection authority. That seems especially true given an early challenge that is testing the working relationship between the Corps and the SLFPA-E.

In February the Bush administration proposed taking the $1.3 billion appropriated last year for flood control projects on the east bank of the Mississippi and in other areas under the SLFPA-E’s jurisdiction and using it for projects on the west bank. The reasons for this suggestion are complex. For instance, some of the money was designated for construction of permanent pumping stations to help close off the mouths of the outfall canals that drain water from New Orleans into Lake Pontchartrain, but during Hurricane Katrina those canals contributed to the disaster by providing access for storm surge from the lake to flood the city. Unfortunately, the pumping station construction money cannot be spent right now because the stations have not yet been designed, explains Woodley.

Still, Blanco says the proposed east–west transfer makes “people feel like they’re being pitted against each other,” and the SLFPA-E adopted a resolution that “strenuously opposed” the plan. Both Blanco and the SLFPA-E have urged Congress to allocate additional funding for all federal flood control projects in the New Orleans area. The SLFPA-E has also asked Congress to grant the Corps greater flexibility to shift money from project to project within either of the two levee authorities—but not from one side of the Mississippi to the other.

It was difficult for the SLFPA-E to publicly oppose a plan that would fund work on projects under the SLFPA-W’s jurisdiction, Jackson acknowledges, given the need for the two levee authorities to work together closely. But he fears that critical projects will be either delayed or canceled if the funding is transferred. At best, any replacement funding for the shifted monies might require a 30 percent local funding match, which is not the case with the current allocations, Jackson says.

Woodley explains that only the projects to restore the previously authorized levels of hurricane protection are fully covered by federal allocations. The projects to upgrade New Orleans’s hurricane protection system will require a local funding match. Woodley concedes, however, that it is not always clear whether a particular project—the outfall canal permanent pumping stations, for example—belongs in the previously authorized category or the upgraded protection category. “I can see arguments either way,” Woodley admits.

It’s an ambiguous answer, to be sure. But it may be exactly what any engineer will encounter when he or she steps away from the precision of strictly designing and constructing public works and instead leaps into the less certain process of developing public policy.