Restoring And Improving New Orleans Levees

Led Zepellin said it best: Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good. Now, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good. When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.

The Bush administration has secured $7.1 billion from Congress for the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers to repair and enhance the 350 miles of levees protecting the city of New Orleans from flood waters surging from Lake Pontchartrain, the Gulf of Mexico and the mighty Mississippi River. In addition, funding will be used to begin to restore the wetlands surrounding the greater New Orleans area, which help absorb floodwaters and buffer the city from hurricanes and which are disappearing at a rate of 28,000 acres per year.

According to the administration, all damages to pre-Katrina infrastructure have been repaired, and in many places, “the system is now better than before Hurricane Katrina struck.”

Most of the damaged I-wall construction floodwalls have been replaced with T-walls that have stronger foundations, says the administration, and the most vulnerable floodwalls have been armored to protect against erosion. Most transition points between levees have been strengthened. In total, 36 miles of new levees and floodwalls have been rebuilt and restored to original design height, and floodgates have been added to protect outfall canals that drain water from the city to Lake Pontchartrain.

In 2004, following Category 3 Hurricane Ivan, Al Naomi, senior project manager for the Corps of Engineers, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “It's possible to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane. But we've got to start. To do nothing is tantamount to negligence.”

At that time, before Katrina, Naomi predicted it could take as long as 20 years and at least $1 billion to raise the levees high enough and to build floodgates at the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain.

The corps had hoped to begin a study in 2004 to determine the steps necessary to fortify the levees and the cost. The Army Corps of Engineers predicted the study would take 4 years and cost $4 million, but they ran out of time before it could be completed. And, unfortunately, the levees did not withstand the flooding associated with a Category 5 hurricane.

In His FY 2009 budget, President Bush will request an additional $7.6 billion needed to complete improvements to the levees. This funding will allow the Army Corps of Engineers to complete its work to improve storm and flood protection infrastructure in Greater New Orleans to a 100-year protection level by 2011. It will also fund a $1.3 billion network of interior drainage projects to ensure the area has a more complete hurricane protection system.

On Aug. 22, Louisiana Congressman Bobby Jindal said, “As we approach the 2-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I am pleased that the administration today announced their intent to include more than $7.5 billion in the FY 09 budget for flood protection work in the New Orleans area. While this news will finally help provide the 100-year flood protection that the area deserves, I am disappointed that it has taken almost two years since the storms to get to this point and would encourage the administration to expedite this funding so work can continue.”

Jindal cited the dealy as “just another example of the slow, bureaucratic process at both the state and federal levels that continue to hamper our recovery.”

Jindal said he is troubled by the fact that the state of Louisiana ultimately could be responsible for picking up almost $2.6 billion of the cost in fortifying the levees.

“Our citizens had always been told that the levees built by the corp were sufficient,” said Jindal.”Now that we know they were not, it should not fall to the state to pick up more than 35 percent of the cost to make sure they are secure.”

8/29 Commission

A group called Levees.org has been calling for a comprehensive, independent 8/29 Commission to take a targeted look at the collapse of the levee system and examine the steps that must be taken to prevent another storm from drowning the city. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., introduced an amendment to the Water Resources Development Act to create the necessary congressionally sanctioned investigative commission.

Said Landrieu, “There have been numerous studies about Katrina, without any clear direction of how to prevent a flood control system failure in the future. These studies have not adequately zeroed in on the crucial question of how our levees failed us, and the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force chaired by the corps itself did not provide the completely independent examination that is required.”

Landrieu and Levees.org claim analysis similar to that by the 9-11 Commission is the only route to uncovering how 1,071 lives were lost and 786,372 people were displaced when the federal government-built levee system failed to protect New Orleans.

Landrieu was outraged by the Aug. 2 decision of the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals to dismiss the insurance claims of Louisiana residents and businesses stemming from Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaks that followed.

“The failures of the levees were directly the result of engineering failures by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said Landrieu. “Simply put, the damage caused by these failures was a man-made disaster, and an exclusion commonly interpreted as one for natural disasters is now being used by the insurers to sidestep their responsibility to home and business owners.

“The insurance companies and their lawyers certainly know how to prepare policies that distinguish between natural and manmade disasters,” Landrieu added. “In fact, the Fifth Circuit acknowledged this ability more than 30 years ago, and again [Aug. 2]. Nonetheless, it has now totally ignored its own precedent, siding with manipulative insurers against the Louisianians who pay them to take the risk.”

Calling the decision from the three Texas judges “gravely flawed,” Landrieu added it contradicts “not only Louisiana's legislative intent, but also the views of many Louisiana jurists who have considered the issue.”

Landrieu encouraged the Fifth Circuit to reconsider its decision and defer the issue to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

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