Bob Bea, the nation's foremost forensic engineer, is the guy to call when levees break or oil rigs explode.
Credit: Photograph by Robyn Twomey

Retirement looms on the horizon, vaguely, but first Bea has a few things to wrap up. Much on his mind is the potential flooding of his backyard.

The weakest point of American flood defense now is not New Orleans or Miami, but the Sacramento – San Joaquin River Delta, just up the road from Berkeley. The delta is a vast estuary, through which fresh water for more than 25 million Californians flows. The delta is ringed by 1,100 miles of levees, but some are nearly 150 years old and leaking. The region is vulnerable to Pacific storms or, worse, an earthquake. Seismologists have predicted a 40 percent chance of a "catastrophic" quake there in the next 30 years. If the delta levees fail, the result could be a megaflood that would cripple the state, now the ninth-largest economy in the world. Yet Californians have been bitterly divided over a response for decades. Every solution is expensive and politically fraught. Bea is working on a task force, and calls the delta a "ticking bomb," warning that a breach there would prove worse even than Hurricane Katrina.

"The Deepwater Horizon was trying to tell us something was wrong in the Gulf," he says. "Now the levees are trying to tell us something is wrong in the delta. If those levees go, we're all going to be drinking saltwater coffee," he jokes tragically. "My sailboat is rigged and ready to go!"

Bob Bea is genial, unfailingly polite, and has an uncanny ability to synthesize complex information. He is widely admired in engineering circles. But he admits to being "ornery," and seems haunted by the memory of Hurricane Betsy. He is in perpetual motion – teaching, writing technical papers, attending conferences, consulting hither and yon. He has missed Christmas with his wife and two sons. He eats and sleeps little. It's as if he's racing to plug all the holes in a giant, leaky dike before it bursts.

When I asked why he pushes himself so hard at an age when most people are focused on their golf game, he replies, "Make a living. Have some fun. Leave the world a better place." He shrugs, searching for answers. "I'm an engineer, but much like the corps, I don't always communicate well. Sometimes I don't have the words to explain myself. All I can say is 'I'm Bob. I'm here to help.'"

Bea has a lucrative international consulting career. But the work is exhausting, and he's growing tired. In the Katrina case, he is facing a vengeful Corps of Engineers, some of New Orleans' toughest lawyers, the Department of Justice, and 30 experts determined to poke holes in his work. It keeps him up. But he recently popped awake at 3 am with an insight: "I suddenly realized they can say what they want, but I've got the data. Bingo! That's where I find my solace."

Bea's role in the lawsuit will soon end. He will then testify about his investigation of the 2010 San Bruno blast – in which a Pacific Gas & Electric gas pipeline exploded, killing eight and devastating a San Francisco suburb. "Then I'll be done," he smiles. Pausing a beat, he adds, "Well, there is one more thing."

San Pedro, near the port of L.A., has bloomed into a major petrochemical complex. Residents, worried about a San Bruno – type explosion, have asked him to investigate.

"Worn-out, tired old bastards are the only ones with the time and patience to look at this thing seriously," said Bea.

What does he see there? "It's risky. Very risky," he says, a gleam in his eye. "I'm going to have a look."

See also: Bob Bea's List of America's Most Vulnerable Places