reason to blame the Bush administration for the Katrina devastation. Then I started reading. I read some things, and some more things, and now I want to cry.
You see, one of the things that guards New Orleans from the effects of a storm surge is wetlands. Oh, now you see where this is going don’t you? Yeah, but that’s not all of it. We all know N.O. has man-made provisions to protect the city. How well was their development funded? Well, it had received some funding when they had a bad experience and some people died back in ’95. What else did it have? It had the Army Corps of Engineers working for it. It had the EPA working for it. Was it good enough? Not yet (obviously).
One of the articles discussed (and mentioned above) I will quote here. It is from Lexis-Nexis so I can’t link it. I will leave you with the full text of the article to enjoy.
For the first time in 37 years, federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area’s east bank hurricane levees, a complex network of concrete walls, metal gates and giant earthen berms that won’t be finished for at least another decade.
“I guess people look around and think there’s a complete system in place, that we’re just out here trying to put icing on the cake,” said Mervin Morehiser, who manages the “Lake Pontchartrain and vicinity” levee project for the Army Corps of Engineers. “And we aren’t saying that the sky is falling, but people should know that this is a work in progress, and there’s more important work yet to do before there is a complete system in place.”
In reality, levee building is a long-term undertaking. Section by section, earth is piled into walls as high as 20 feet to protect land on the east bank of the Mississippi River from water that a slow-moving Category 3 hurricane could shove out of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne. But the levees gradually settle into southeast Louisiana’s mucky subsoil, and every few years, the corps comes back, section by section, to pile on more dirt in what insiders call a “lift.”
“It has always been part of our long-range plan to raise each section of the levee four or even five times,” said Al Naomi, the corps’ senior project manager. “After that, we think the levee might have stabilized and not need further raisings.”
Time for next lift
It’s time now for the next lifts in a number of places that have sunk 2 to 4 feet from their design elevations. These include in Kenner west of the Pontchartrain Center, Metairie between Causeway Boulevard and Clearview Parkway, Norco and St. Rose in St. Charles Parish, the Bayou Sauvage area of eastern New Orleans, and remote marshland areas of eastern St. Bernard Parish.
The subsidence is expected.
What’s new, said Morehiser and Naomi, is that the agency has run out of money for the next round of lifts. Naomi said this is the first time a lack of money has stopped major corps work on the levees since the project began in 1967.
“I can’t tell you exactly what that could mean this hurricane season if we get a major storm,” Naomi said. “It would depend on the path and speed of the storm, the angle that it hits us.
“But I can tell you that we would be better off if the levees were raised, . . . and I think it’s important and only fair that those people who live behind the levee know the status of these projects.”
Levees on the east bank of New Orleans, as well as some in eastern St. Bernard Parish, are among the area’s oldest and have had several lifts. Corps engineers said the next lift might be the last they need.
But the levees on the east bank of St. Charles and Jefferson parishes are much younger, and most stretches have had only one or two lifts.
“This project isn’t expected to end for another 13 to 15 years,” Morehiser said. “They aren’t really finished levees at this point. We don’t even turn them over to their local sponsors until we consider them stable, which is years from now.”
The levees are designed to handle a storm surge of 11 feet, and every additional foot of levee above that is intended to contain waves that otherwise would top the levee. The height of individual levee segments vary.
“When levees are below grade, as ours are in many spots right now, they’re more vulnerable to waves pouring over them and degrading them,” Naomi said. “We’re not below storm-surge elevation yet, but we will be if we stop raising our levees as they subside.”
Bush budget falls short
The Bush administration’s proposed fiscal 2005 budget includes only $3.9 million for the east bank hurricane project. Congress likely will increase that amount, although last year it bumped up the administration’s $3 million proposal only to $5.5 million.
“I needed $11 million this year, and I got $5.5 million,” Naomi said. “I need $22.5 million next year to do everything that needs doing, and the first $4.5 million of that will go to pay four contractors who couldn’t get paid this year.”
Naomi said the corps already owes four contractors more than $2 million for hurricane protection work they’ve done this year without pay, and he expects the figure to climb to about $4.5 million by Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.
The challenge now, said emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri in Jefferson Parish and Terry Tullier in New Orleans, is for southeast Louisiana somehow to persuade those who control federal spending that protection from major storms and flooding are matters of homeland security.
“It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay,” Maestri said. “Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”
Tullier said, “There is no magic bullet or single key for us. It takes all the keys that we have, and our system of protection is only as strong as its weakest link.
“For us, this levee is part and parcel of homeland security because it helps protect us 365 days a year.”
Weak links elsewhere
Levee-raising is only part of the flood-related work that has stopped since the federal government began reducing Corps of Engineers appropriations in 2001, as more money was diverted to homeland security, the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Naomi said the local corps district has no money to close gaps in the hurricane levee on St. Charles Parish’s east bank. That levee is designed to protect St. Rose, Destrehan, New Sarpy and Norco, as well as keep floodwater from closing Airline Drive, a major evacuation route.
Nor does the corps have money to floodproof the Robert E. Lee Bridge over the London Canal in New Orleans, nor to build the concrete walls and gates to protect pump stations Nos. 3 and 7 from storm surges on the New Orleans lakefront.
All of these projects, along with periodic levee lifts, are part of the corps’ long-term $745 million hurricane protection project.
“The big danger here is that if we don’t get the money to award these contracts that are ready to go, the backlog will only increase as the levees continue to settle,” Naomi said. “We’ll end up so far behind that we can’t catch up. And the further behind we get, the more critical the safety of the city becomes.”
Sheila Grissett may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 883-7058.
Copyright 2004 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
Times-Picayune (New Orleans)