Sep 29 2006
Don’t blame Katrina, blame the Army Corps of Engineers
One year later, it’s clear that decades of engineering and political blunders doomed New Orleans
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Dallas Morning News
The story of how the Army Corps of Engineers drowned New Orleans does not pack the kind of emotional power that leaves telepathic TV personalities almost speechless. It is a story that takes place mostly in the fine print of technical studies and appropriation bills, long before the rooftop rescues.
But it’s still a story that should tighten your throat. What made Katrina so unusual was the collapse of the New Orleans levees. But the levees were not really in Katrina’s path, and their collapse was not the result of geography (even as it must be acknowledged that low-lying New Orleans was in harm’s way long before the Corps came along). Their failure was the result of the Corps, which betrayed New Orleans in five different ways.
The Corps got its start as a tiny engineering regiment during the Revolutionary War, but over the last two centuries, the Corps has gradually expanded into America’s dominant civil engineering force. The heart of its civil mission involves water. The Corps developed much of America’s water transportation network, dredging harbors for ships, manhandling unruly rivers into reliable ribbons of commerce, providing the shock troops in the nation’s war on nature. Water resources were considered useless in their natural form, so Congress in the 19th century assigned the Corps to “improve” them into useful engines of economic development.
After the Civil War, an egomaniacal Corps commander named Andrew Humphreys, who had lost a thousand men in 15 minutes during a charge at Fredericksburg, coordinated a similarly disastrous assault on the Mississippi River, bullying local officials into adopting his “levees-only” policy. As levees began rising on both sides of the river – each town had an obvious incentive to build higher than the one opposite – the constricted Mississippi lashed out with increasing force, blasting crevasses through weak spots in the dikes. As John McPhee has noted, the Corps proclaimed that the river was under control “before the great floods of 1884, 1890, 1891, 1897, 1898 and 1903, and … again before 1912, 1913, 1922 and 1927.”
That last one was the big one, leaving almost 1 million people homeless and ending the reign of New Orleans as the financial capital of the South. The Corps and its levees-only policy had created a catastrophic mess. Naturally, Congress assigned the agency full responsibility for controlling the river’s floods and dramatically increased its budget.
In 1928, the Corps devised a new plan to control the Mississippi, featuring spillways and reservoirs as well as levees high enough to contain biblical floods. The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MR&T) was the most ambitious and expensive federal initiative of its day. And in a departure from the usual local cost-sharing rules, American taxpayers would pay the entire price.
The project kept the Mississippi and its tributaries away from middle America’s floodplains, but because the Mississippi no longer carried as much silt from its banks and its floodplain down to its delta, it no longer created as many of the coastal wetlands that helped absorb storm surges from the Gulf. As the Corps choked off the river’s natural land-building process, marshes began disintegrating into open water at a rate of 25 square miles per year. Meanwhile New Orleans began to sink, as the tremendous infusions of silt that had shored up the city’s foundations no longer arrived to serve as natural fill. Overall, scientists believe the land losses raised Katrina’s surge by several feet.
That is the first way the Corps war on nature set the stage for last year’s disaster.
The MR&T kicked off a Corps construction boom. Water projects became a form of currency on Capitol Hill, a conduit for congressmen to steer jobs and other goodies to constituents and contributors. And the Corps gained influential allies in the shipping, dredging, farming and building industries, the “customers” who reaped the benefits of its work.
Presidents from both parties tried in vain to rein in the pork-peddling of the Corps, but there was not much that the executive branch could do to thwart the congressional appetite. One example was the $62 million Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a 76-mile navigation shortcut to the Port of New Orleans. According to a Corps history, “The costs were shown to be high and the benefits … speculative.” Opponents denounced it as a storm-surge shotgun pointed at New Orleans, a hydrological Trojan horse that would transport the Gulf into the city. But under pressure from its friends in the port and Congress, the Corps concluded the outlet was justified. In 1965, the outlet helped Hurricane Betsy ravage St. Bernard Parish, exactly as the critics had warned.
The outlet went on to destroy more than 20,000 acres of surrounding marshlands and never attracted much freight. But the Corps continued to spend $13 million a year dredging it. And in 2004, a Corps study predictably concluded that it should remain open, a study so shoddy the Bush administration ordered the Corps to redo it. But Katrina arrived first. And Louisiana State University researchers believe the outlet amplified its surge by as much as 40 percent. That is the second way the Corps did in New Orleans.
In the 1950s, after a series of powerful storms, Congress directed the Corps to start studying hurricane protections around the country. But nothing came of the New Orleans study until Betsy became the first storm to cause $1 billion in damages. Senate Finance Chairman Russell B. Long of Louisiana called President Johnson and urged him to have a look at the wreckage. Mr. Johnson got on a plane, and six weeks later, Congress authorized a project to protect New Orleans from the Gulf.
But there were two serious problems with the project, and they turned out to be the third and the fourth ways Congress and the Corps shafted New Orleans: It was not built in the right place, and it was not built to withstand a storm as fierce as Billion-Dollar Betsy.
One might think that an agency assigned to protect New Orleans from a hurricane would set out to build the best possible protection for its residents. Not so. Congress required the Corps to come up with the plan with the highest economic benefits compared to costs – regardless of who got those benefits, or the cost of destroying wetlands, or even the cost of human lives. And when the Corps ran the numbers in 1965, it concluded that the best way to produce economic benefits would be to build levees around low-lying wetlands on the city’s outskirts, which would “hasten urbanization and industrialization” in unpopulated areas, which would make some landowners and developers rich.
At one hearing in 1978, Rep. Robert Livingston ripped a Corps colonel for protecting swamps instead of people. “It would seem to me that if hurricane protection to the people and properties is the paramount importance, the portion you would want to complete first would be those levees surrounding inhabited areas rather than those around uninhabited areas,” he said. “Would that not be a priority, sir?”
It would not. Only 21 percent of the land the Corps project aimed to protect was already developed. The rest was soggy. The Corps would make it dry, encouraging the development of thousands of homes in a vulnerable floodplain. Katrina would put it all back underwater.
Still, it is doubtful that the swamps-vs.-people problem was entirely a result of the outrageous rules directing the Corps to ignore human lives. Politics usually matters more than rules when it comes to Corps studies. In recent years, the Corps has been repeatedly caught manipulating its studies to justify waterworks for its “customers.” So while it is possible that the Corps protected swamps instead of people out of a legalistic sense of duty, it probably didn’t hurt that Mr. Johnson’s family had investments in some of those wetlands outside New Orleans. The Corps has never figured out that its real customers are the people affected by its projects and the taxpayers who finance them.
One might also think that the agency assigned to protect New Orleans from hurricanes would plan for a worst-case scenario. Again, not so. The Corps was only authorized to plan for a “Standard Project Hurricane,” a 100-year storm. And even though the Corps had calculated that “design storm” before Betsy, based on milder hurricanes, it did not change those calculations after Betsy.
The Corps concluded that upgrading its plan to defend against a Category Four storm would be “cost-prohibitive,” so its project was only designed to stop a Category Three. The notion of Category Five or even Category Four protections never seemed to occur to anyone in Congress or at the Corps.
In truth, one qualification must be entered against all this Corps- and Congress-bashing: the New Orleans Levee District, the city’s representatives on flood-control issues, did not even want Category Three protection. In 1982, the district urged the Corps to “lower its design standards to provide more realistic hurricane protection,” suggesting that 100-year defenses would be fine. That is because, unlike the river levees, which were fully funded by Uncle Sam, hurricane levees required a local cost-share. And the levee district preferred to spend its cash on such necessities as riverboat gambling schemes and a $2.4 million Mardi Gras fountain.
The levee district’s stinginess also forced the Corps to change its strategy for keeping Lake Pontchartrain’s waters out of New Orleans. The Corps wanted to build floodgates across three drainage canals that stretched from the lake into the city, but the district did not want to pay the maintenance costs for the gates. So the district persuaded Mr. Long to enact language that forced the Corps to build higher floodwalls along the canals instead of gates that could have kept lake water out of the canals in the first place. The new plan invited the enemy to the city’s doorstep, assuming that the Corps would keep it out. That was a fatal assumption.
Failing to build floodgates across the three drainage canals was probably the most serious design error; the floodwalls along two of the canals collapsed during Katrina, even though they were never even overtopped. Those floodwalls were built in overly mushy soils, without appropriate reinforcement. All of these flaws were the Corps’s fifth contribution to the catastrophe. And so New Orleans drowned.
One of the tragedy’s nauseating aspects is that in recent years, the Louisiana delegation and the Corps began to see it coming and considered action to try to prevent it. A bipartisan coalition of Louisiana politicians and interest groups launched a crusade to revive the region’s coastal wetlands and worked with the Corps on a $14 billion restoration plan. Former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, testified for the plan in 2004.
“We’ll be faced one day with thousands of our citizens drowned and killed, people drowned like rats in the city of New Orleans,” he said. But Mr. Tauzin’s support for the plan had not stopped him from leading the Republican push to dismantle federal wetlands protections.
Similarly, at a hearing two months before Katrina, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, another Louisiana Republican, showed a simulation of a Category Four hurricane drowning New Orleans under 18 feet of water. But Mr. Vitter’s support for the plan had not stopped him from writing legislation designed to help logging companies deforest Louisiana’s cypress swamps. Coastal Louisiana still loses a football field worth of wetlands every 30 minutes.
True, the Bush administration was stingy with the Corps. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu requested $98.7 million for the project in the five years before Katrina, while the administration proposed only $22.4 million. But at least the Bush administration was consistent: It also proposed zero funding for most of the few dozen most egregious Corps boondoggles.
Somehow, though, the Louisiana delegation managed to override President Bush’s cuts when its pork was at stake. Congress poured $1.9 billion into Corps projects in Louisiana in those five pre-Katrina years, by far the most of any state. If the delegation’s top priority had been protection instead of pork, it could have gotten what it wanted. When a Corps study concluded that the cost of a New Iberia port-deepening project would be three times the benefits, Democrat Landrieu tucked a provision into an emergency funding bill for the Iraq war that ordered the Corps to redo its analysis. She didn’t do that for Category Five levees.
After Katrina, the Corps initially claimed that its levees had been overtopped and overwhelmed, then refused to address its culpability until New Orleans was off the front page. Sens. Vitter and Landrieu organized a “working group” of lobbyists for ports, shipping firms, energy companies and other corporate interests to assemble Louisiana’s relief request; the inflation-adjusted result would have cost more than the Louisiana Purchase. It included $40 billion for Corps projects, including the Industrial Canal lock, the New Iberia port-deepening and other hurricane-unrelated pork.
This time the looters went too far. Congress sent the delegation back to the drawing board. A year after its aggravated assault, New Orleans remains in intensive care. The Corps is rebuilding its failed levees to their original Category Three strength. And the Big One is still on the way.
Michael Grunwald, a reporter for The Washington Post, published a longer version of this essay in The New Republic (www.tnr.com). His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Source: Dallas Morning News
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