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New Orleans Remains Problematic for Army Corps of Engineers

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Nearly an entire year since Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast, leaving behind extensive damage to several states and the city of New Orleans, most would think that recovery is well underway. While Mississippi has faired far better than Louisiana, with less residents impacted, New Orleans remains troubled. Suffering flood damage in 80% of the area from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, compounded weeks later by Hurricane Rita, New Orleans has far greater obstacles to overcome than most had ever expected.

New Orleans is not in a rebuilding mode, but rather in a reconstruction mode. It has not only been victim of hurricanes raging out of control but a government out of control, thus the creation of a perfect storm. With a city history steeped in political corruption, a high crime rate, a high poverty rate, in educational decline, the hurricanes of 2005 allowed Americans a peek behind New Orleans' proverbial curtain. And it exposed the open wounds of a city now with twice the task of rebuilding, as it was in a downturn well before its levees broke.

So far over $20 billion has been allocated by the federal government to assist in New Orleans and Gulf Coast restorations. Yet, such appropriations do not solve the most desperate problem New Orleans faces which is the restoration and reformation of its levee system. It remains crucial to New Orleans' future or its chance to even have one. And to that end, it will not only take the brawn of the Army Corps of Engineers but its candor as well, in spite of its less than forthcoming past.

A nine-volume report with some 6,113 pages, costing some $20 million, was prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers at the request of the Congress on the status of the Louisiana coast's levee system. It became preliminarily available to certain lawmakers on June 1, 2006 and was delivered on July 10, 2006 to the Congress. Surprisingly, its final draft is not due until December 2007. Its purpose was for the Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a plan in order to protect Louisiana's coast and infrastructure from a category 5 hurricane. Now, even the stated purpose of the report is in contention and has caused conflict.

Objections as to the content of the draft report have been raised by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco as well as U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D) LA, setting the backdrop for heightened frustrations which will remain throughout this process of what appears to be a series of unending dilemmas. The Army Corps of Engineers did acknowledge, however, in its report that the levees it built had flaws in their design, construction and maintenance of the 350-mile levee system.

It was divulged that the levee system was never built to handle a hurricane even close to the strength of Hurricane Katrina's which was a category 3. According to the report, "The hurricane protection system in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana was a system in name only." The report's investigators found that the flood protection, consisting of a network of levees, floodwalls, pumps and gates were to provide the necessary protections and should have been far more resilient. Due to design flaws, breaches were suffered in the New Orleans' drainage canals which were never foreseen. Even though the waters did not rise above the height of the floodwalls, they still failed.

Given the voluminous size of the Army Corps of Engineers' report, it has been criticized as to its skeletal and scant recommendations for the coast's restoration. It does recommend that as much as 98% of the levee system impacting New Orleans will require a great deal of work in order to raise the height of the levees. The Army Corps of Engineers is presently still studying the requirements for increasing levee heights and to ensure stability for such changes. But it is also dependent upon the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide the necessary information for doing so. Sadly, it is not expected the increase in the height of the levees will be finished until at least 2010.

And although the report identified key pitfalls of the current levee system, it does not go into depth about the necessity of the restoration of the coast's wetlands and marshes, badly eroded and largely ignored over the years as well. Their restoration remains critical in providing a further barrier in order to mitigate flooding into the city of New Orleans. The report revealed that the city was sinking a lot faster than anyone had expected, and as much as an inch per year in some areas. In spite of outcries from local officials and outside scientists and engineers, nothing over the decades had been done to address the wetlands or to maintain the levees.

And like most problems, one entity, and in this case the Army Corps of Engineers, cannot shoulder all of the blame given the inertia of state and local officials over the years. But the question is not how much money the federal government is going to throw at New Orleans but how to avoid even more misspending. For at stake is the reliability of the integrity of the levee system. And without such a plan there will not be a dependable levee system and New Orleans cannot be realistically rebuilt nor attract investors to help restore it.

The flood plain map has now been revised by FEMA and is now available for federal flood insurance purposes and for homeowners to decide whether they are now indeed in a flood plain. Many houses which were flooded were never even in the original flood plain maps. And many homeowners with houses damaged by wind are in litigation with insurance companies that have blamed flooding on such damage. This leaves most homeowners awaiting payment from the partial amounts insurance companies will pay with remaining mortgages on houses which are beyond repair, yet without the money to rebuild or relocate.

Astoundingly, the present water system in New Orleans is losing close to 85 million gallons of water each day due to its vast number of leaks. So far, 17,000 leaks have been repaired, however, many still remain. The city is pumping 135 million gallons of water through 80 miles of pipeline a day in order to utilize 50 million gallons. Therefore, water and energy are seriously being wasted at a cost of $200,000.00 per day. The estimated cost to complete the pipeline leaks is $1 billion. Presently, there are no state or federal appropriations for the city's pipeline.

Also pending in the Congress, which could have huge ramifications for the levee system's repair, is the Water Resources Development Act. It has been shelved in both the House of Representatives and the Senate since April 2005, well before Hurricane Katrina hit U.S. shores. The legislation provides for the authorization of funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects.

To date, the Army Corps of Engineers has a backlog of $58 billion in projects nationally, going back 10 years. And the legislation as originally drafted does not provide for a prioritization for its projects. Therefore, the McCain-Feingold amendment was introduced in the Senate this year precisely to provide for a priority schedule and time-frame for projects most in need. It would expedite restoring the levees of New Orleans. But the Congress must vote and approve the amendment which takes time. And it could jeopardize putting lofty pork barrel projects presently included in the bill on the back burner. Thus far, the amendment has not been widely embraced by the Senate.

While the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina gave Americans a bird's eye view into a system of failures on the local, state and federal levels, it more importantly showed that the system of communication between levels of government is broken. Promises have since been made and monies appropriated to correct such deficiencies but the same backroom deals and lack of transparency are ripe to be repeated.

Americans across the country and people across the world were stunned to see the abject poverty which existed in New Orleans. But even more dismaying a year later is the lack of progress in New Orleans with respect to basic and human services and improving its infrastructure. For New Orleans is no longer a city in decline, but now a city in decay. And ultimately America needs to decide now, before the next natural or manmade disaster, of whether it will allow such deterioration and ruin to ever persist again.

Copyright ę 2006 Diane M. Grassi
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Diane M. Grassi is an investigative journalist and reporter providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs, including key federal and state legislation as well as court decisions relative to the (more...)
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