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Engineering professors discuss why New Orleans levees, floodwalls failed


BLACKSBURG, Va., March 29, 2006 – At what point did the levees and flood walls break in New Orleans as it faced Hurricane Katrina seven months ago? That is what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hope to find out with the help of two Virginia Tech professors.

The Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech is sponsoring a major lecture presentation Wednesday, April 5, entitled "Hurricane Katrina and Flood Protection in New Orleans" by J. Michael Duncan, University Distinguished Professor, and James K. Mitchell, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Via Emeritus Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The presentation will be held from 4 to 5 p.m. in the Hancock Hall Auditorium (Hancock 100) with a reception immediately following afterward in the Hancock Atrium.

Duncan serves on an evaluation team organized by the Corps of Engineers, and Mitchell is a member of a review team organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The two groups have been working to determine how to make the levees stronger and protect the beloved city. With hurricane season three months away and meteorologists predicting a worse hurricane season than last, the issue is even more important.

The Corps of Engineers has organized an Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) to collect and analyze information on the performance of the New Orleans hurricane protection system during Katrina. One of the specific IPET tasks is Analysis of Floodwall and Levee Performance, a task group co-chaired by Duncan. Duncan's group will play a key role in ascertaining the cause of levee failure and to better understand how best to protect New Orleans from future hurricane events.

Mitchell is a member of the External Review Panel that has been set up by the American Society of Civil Engineers to review the work conducted within the Army Corps of Engineers and the IPET task force regarding Hurricane Katrina and its effect on New Orleans.

The April 5th lecture will review:

The New Orleans levee system and governmental/political oversight issues related to the system; The events that occurred during the hurricane and its aftermath; and The technical findings of the investigative team.

Those attending the presentation will come away with a better understanding of what occurred in New Orleans and what may be done in the future to be better prepared.

Duncan, elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1985, came to Virginia Tech from the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley in 1984 as the W. Thomas Rice Professor of Civil Engineering. In 1987, he was appointed University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. Duncan has developed and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in geotechnical engineering, dealing with soil mechanics, foundations, and earth dams. He has earned four Teaching Excellence Awards at Virginia Tech, and was named the Outstanding Engineering Educator in Virginia in 1994. Duncan received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgia Tech and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a registered professional engineer in California and Virginia.

Mitchell, elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1976 and the National Academy of Sciences in 1998, joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1994 as the first Charles E. Via, Jr. Professor of Civil Engineering and was appointed University Distinguished Professor in 1996. He came to Virginia Tech from the University of California at Berkeley, where he held an endowed chair and conducted research in both the Institute of Transportation Studies and the Earthquake Engineering Research Center. Mitchell had been on the Berkeley faculty since 1958. Also a registered engineer in California and Virginia, Mitchell received his bachelor’s from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1951and his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956. He also served on active duty in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1956 to 1958.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 5,500 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 1,800 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.