Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tastes like shoddy engineering

UPDATE: National Geographic has taken down the video of Bob Bea putting gutter water into his mouth. The story remains at their web page, and the link button is still there, but it links to a different video now. Perhaps they realized how foolish and dangerous it is to taste gutter water, and perhaps they understand how irresponsible it is, especially for a man of science and someone who claims to be an engineer, to set such a poor example. The edited story is here.


The last few days have not been good for those of us working to protect New Orleans from future disaster.

First, we get college professor Bob Bea, a man who purports to believe in the scientific method and rational engineering, performing a “taste test” of gutter water as an alleged engineering assessment of a nearby floodwall.

I am not making this up. Bea bent over and dipped his fingers into a puddle of water at the edge of the roadway and put them into his mouth—twice—in order to determine the salinity of the water. He then announced he had determined, by the taste, that the water had come from the nearby Industrial Canal. Bea concluded that the newly constructed wall in the Lower Ninth Ward was being undermined and was thus doomed to failure.

It’s all on the video from National Geographic News.

Bea did not indicate what ASTM standard he used to perform the taste test. Neither did he say when was the last time his tongue had been calibrated for salinity testing. But nonetheless, here he is, on video, putting dirty, perhaps biologically infested gutter water into his mouth.

Shame on Bea! What kind of scientist performs taste tests on dirty water? What kind of engineer sets such a poor example by putting potentially disease-filled water into his mouth? Notice in the video that the reporter immediately follows Bea’s despicable example. Let’s hope this does not inspire people around New Orleans to taste the gutter water near their homes as they mimic this alleged expert.

Second, we have John Barry, a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East board, repeating--as if it were well-established science--the unfounded but popular claim that a mile of marsh will “absorb” a foot of hurricane storm surge.

Barry wrote an excellent piece in The Washington Post this week about why we need New Orleans, and why America owes its brothers and sisters at the mouth of the Mississippi River the best hurricane protection we can afford.

He starts off on scientifically solid ground, recounting how the river built south Louisiana with sediment from the north. Barry goes on to explain how the river no longer carries the mud necessary to continue its work.

But then he repeats the myth of marsh as hurricane protection, stating as fact that “Each land mile over which a hurricane travels absorbs roughly a foot of storm surge.”

Not true.

The best research to date indicates that each mile over land reduces a hurricane storm surge by about 3 inches. And mind you, even this is really not all that conclusive—it could be much less.

Why is this important? Why would I want to knock Bea and Barry, who are obviously allies of New Orleans and who are out there fighting for a safer future for us?

Because the way I see it, shoddy science and ill-considered engineering are what got us into this mess in the first place. We don’t need any more of that.

If we’re going to have a safe and secure future, we have to proceed with the best information, the most accurate and scientifically valid information available. We need engineers and scientists to wear out their pencils working on this problem, and we need them to develop a rational, methodical plan to get us where we need to be.

What we don’t need is rumors, myths, new-age pseudo-science, and stunts. And unfortunately, that’s what we recently got from Bea and, to a lesser extent, Barry.

Let’s hope Bea doesn’t contract dysentery, and let’s hope he starts to act more like an engineer and less like a carnival side show act.


Kirstin said...

He put that stuff in his mouth?? Yick.

I'm a West Coast kid--from Seattle and now living in the SF Bay Area. I went to NOLA on a mission trip with some seminary classmates in March, and I'm coming back in January to do an oral history project.

Be safe.

Sophmom said...

I've been thinking of you, reading all this stuff. I also had the exact same thoughts about Bea tasting that water. What was he thinking?? EWWWW. Have the actual tests come back yet? Do we know that it's not seeping under that enormous wall? I thought, with the exception that you've mentioned, the Barry article needed saying. If I can get two or three folks to click over and read it, I don't really care if they go forward thinking that a mile of marsh absorbs a foot of surge as long as they go forward understanding the connection between the sacrifices of the Gulf Coast and the gains of the Heartland.

The really inflammatory piece is at Fix the Pumps. Yikes. Hang in there, darlin'. Keep fighting the good fight. Peace.

mominem said...

I've been advised that Bea lost a lot in hurricane Betsy, I'm sympathetic to his loss.

He then moved to California. I wonder if he's biased.

When it comes to protecting many thousands of people or significant cultural treasures, engineers need to wear out their pencils making sure they have allowed for all contingencies, not designed to the thinnest possible margin.

Great engineering is as much an art as a practical science.

I often wonder whether the current crop of digital engineers actually understand the forces they are dealing with.

Dynamic and indeterminate systems demand great engineering insight, not just number crunching.

Mr. Clio said...

I'm neither an engineer nor a scientist--Damn it, Jim, I'm a philosopher, not an engineer--but even I thought the taste test was both weird and gross.

Thanks for calling attention to it from a professional perspective. You're dead right: let's proceed from a scientific debate, not hysteria.

Maitri said...

Have you sent your comments to Bea and Barry? They would me most effective if fed back to the most vocal sources.

Anonymous said...

The Louisiana GIS CD published in 2000, worth alot of money in great detail, never thought to put the levy's in its database. It was from this database that I learned about the dams in Louisiana and their lack of repair. I also understand that the US ARMY Corp of Engineers is really underfunded. One of the midwestern heads of US ARMY CORP was utilized initially in the proposed Iraqi reconstruction. Do you see any parallel here? Failures? The fact that the levy's were forgotten on the CD says much, too. The CD was created by several LA ST Depts and included the Louisiana Office Of Emergency Preparedness and USGS. ESRI and Intergraph GeoMedia gave away software in order to view the maps of the state with its intricate overlays of powerlines, facilities, roads, gaslines, bridges, etc. Is is any wonder?

pirx said...


A quick inspection of the data presented in the above report strongly suggests that storm surge was reduced by one foot per mile over coastal wetlands. Care to comment?

Tim said...

A quick inspection of the data presented in the report reveals that the maximum water elevations were recorded at a variety of locations in southwest Louisiana during Hurricane Rita. I don't see anything that leads to your conclusion about coastal wetlands. Perhaps you could elaborate?

pirx said...

Will be happy to after I get back from work this afternoon.

pirx said...

For some reason my 1st attempt to post failed, and I left the article and my notes at work. In brief, an assumption of a 14 foot surge attenuating at 3"/mile and moving at 4 mph would show and inland peak of approximately 10 ft, 16 miles inland, and 4 hours after coastal peak. The USGS data does not show anything near that conclusion. The peak level/time/distance relationship between the coast and a sensor, or between 2 sensors is much closer to a surge moving at 6 mph and attenuating at 1 ft/mile.

Most of the terrain is coastal wetland, but I made an attempt to eliminate any pair of sensors that were separated by a natural ridge.

Simplest example is the tardy and inconsistent arrival times of the two sensors on opposite shores of Calcasieu Lake, both are approximately 16 miles inland, both show peak surge long after (5 and 12 hours) after coastal peak, and both peaks are closer to the 1 ft/mile attenuation than 3"/mi.

It will take me a day or two to regenerate the chapter and verse that I lost earlier today, but I can send it to you if you are interested.

Sophmom said...

Tim, has anyone published the lab analysis of the water that Bea suggested was seeping under the wall?

Ellathebella said...

Thanks for your insightful posts. I am working on sustainable development issues with Coastal Community Watch in Bay St Louis, MS.

There is a proposal to fill 1100 acres of wetlands for a high rise development. We are working to educate people why it is important to save the wetlands. Where can I find scientific data such as the impact that filling these wetlands might have on future storm surges?