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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Waiting for evidence

An engineer dies in a car accident and finds himself in Heaven where he is greeted by the full host of angels and a heavenly chorus. “This is fabulous,” the engineer says to Saint Peter. “Do you greet all new arrivals this way?” “Oh, no!” St. Peter says. “This is all to welcome you--the longest living human since the days of Adam.” Confused, the engineer tells the venerable gatekeeper that he was only 35 years old at the time of his death. St. Peter looks through a huge stack of papers and several books resembling accounting ledgers. “Well, according to all of these hours on your time sheets,” St. Peter says, “We figured you were at least 169!”

Unlike lawyer and doctor jokes, engineer jokes are few and far between. This one is an often-told joke that both honors engineers for our long hours of work and skewers us for the sometimes incredible amount of work for which we bill our clients.

I recalled this silly tale today as I read the news account of the ongoing trial against the government regarding the influence of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet on Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge. According to the Associated Press, witness for plaintiffs Bob Bea said he had spent “about 10,000 hours studying the levee failures during Katrina.”

Ten thousand hours? Really?

Katrina struck on Monday, August 29, 2005, and the subject testimony was given Friday, April 24, 2009. That’s a span of 1,334 days. And 10,000 hours divided by 1, 334 days gives us an average of almost 7.5 hours per day. That’s every day—seven days as week, 52 weeks a year. If the plaintiff’s witness had dedicated his full and undivided attention to the subject—40 hours a week with no holidays—the total hours would add up to less than 7,700 hours. And even that’s a stretch.

Not quite as ridiculous as the engineer in the joke, but still a tally that raises an eyebrow.

This same witness against the government compared levee building in Louisiana to the task of Sisyphus, the hopeless soul from Greek mythology. In this, California professor Bea joined a chorus of critics who have said rebuilding New Orleans would be a waste of money and effort. They say New Orleans is doomed and that nature will wash away our city no matter what we do.

It's unfortunate that an engineer, a person supposedly dedicated to using science and technology for the public good, takes such a defeatist view of our city. New Orleans has been here almost 300 years and it seems fickle and cowardly to declare the battle lost now when the resources to protect and preserve the city are more abundant than ever before.

But I suppose his testimony is no worse than the testimony of litigant Norman Robinson. According to news reports, Mr. Robinson took the stand earlier in the trial to detail the pain and suffering he experienced following Katrina. Depression, alcoholism, anger and thoughts of suicide all took their toll on the television newsman.

It certainly must have been gripping testimony. I’m just not sure what any of it has to do with the alleged malfeasance and errors of engineering. Mr. Robinson is neither a scientist nor an engineer and it would appear all he had to offer was his sad story and dramatic telling of it. If plaintiffs are relying so heavily on emotional appeal, it betrays their lack of confidence in proving their case based on science and factual evidence.

Of course, all we have is news accounts, which we know leave most of what is going on in the courtroom untold. It just seems to me that if there was some compelling science, some “smoking gun” evidence, we’d be reading about that rather than the emotional state of plaintiffs and the incredible number of hours their witness spent working on the case.

Perhaps they do have scientific and factual evidence which they will reveal before the trial ends.

Or, perhaps the next witness will tell us the story of the lawyer and the engineer who meet on a fishing trip in the Caribbean. The lawyer tells the engineer, “I'm here because my house burned down. The insurance company paid off well enough for me to take this vacation.”

“That's quite a coincidence,” says the engineer. “I’m also using insurance money for this trip. Except in my case, my house was flooded.”

“Amazing,” says the lawyer. A few moments later, the lawyer says, “So tell me, how do you start a flood?”

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