By Richard A. Serrano and Nicole Gaouette LA Times Writers
Despite Warnings, Washington Failed to Fund Levee Projects. To cut
spending, officials gambled that the worst-case scenario would not
come to be.
September 4, 2005
WASHINGTON - For years, Washington had been warned that doom lurked
just beyond the levees. And for years, the White House and Congress
had dickered over how much money to put into shoring up century-old
dikes and carrying out newer flood control projects to protect the
city of New Orleans.
As recently as three months ago, the alarms were sounding -- and being
In late May, the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers
formally notified Washington that hurricane storm surges could knock
out two of the big pumping stations that must operate night and day
even under normal conditions to keep the city dry.
Also, the Corps said, several levees had settled and would soon need
to be raised. And it reminded Washington that an ambitious
flood-control study proposed four years before remained just that -- a
written proposal never put into action for lack of funding.
What a powerful hurricane could do to New Orleans and the area's
critical transportation, energy and petrochemical facilities had been
well understood. So now, nearly a week into the devastation caused by
Hurricane Katrina, hard questions are being raised about Washington
officials who crossed their fingers and counted on luck once too
often. The reasons the city's defenses were not strengthened enough to
handle such a storm are deeply rooted in the politics and bureaucracy
With the advantage of hindsight, the miscues seem even broader.
Construction proposals were often underfunded or not completed. Washing-
ton officials could never agree on how much money would be needed to
protect New Orleans. And there hung in the air a false sense of
security that a storm like Katrina was a long shot nyway.
As a result, when the immediate crisis eases and inquiries into what
went wrong begin, there is likely to be responsibility and blame
enough for almost every institution in Washington, including the White
House, Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers and a host of other
For example, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the Corps commander, conceded
Friday that the government had known the New Orleans levees could
never withstand a hurricane higher than a Category 3. Corps officials
shuddered, he said, when they realized that Katrina was barreling down
on the Gulf Coast with the vastly greater destructive force of a
Category 5 -- the strongest type of hurricane.
Washington, he said, had rolled the dice.
Rather than come up with the extra millions of dollars needed to make
the city safer, officials believed that such a devastating storm was a
small probability and that, with the level of protection that had been
funded, "99.5% of the time this would work."
Unfortunately, Strock said, "we did not address the 0.5%."
Corps officials said the floodwaters breached at two spots: the 17th
Street Canal Levee and the London Avenue Canal Levee. Connie Gillette,
a Corps spokeswoman, said Saturday there never had been any plans or
funds allocated to shore up those spots -- another sign the government
expected them to hold.
Nevertheless, the Corps hardly was alone in failing to address what it
meant to have a major metropolitan area situated mostly below sea
level, sitting squarely in the middle of the Gulf Coast's Hurricane
Many federal, state and local flood improvement officials kept asking
for more dollars for more ambitious protection projects. But the White
House kept scaling down those requests. And each time, although
congressional leaders were more generous with funding than the White
House, the House and Senate never got anywhere near to approving the
amounts that experts had said was needed.
What happened this year was typical: Local levee and flood prevention
officials, along with Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), asked for $78
million in project funds. President Bush offered them less than half
that -- $30 million. Congress ended up authorizing $36.5 million.
Since Bush took office in 2001, local experts and Landrieu have asked
for just short of $500 million. Altogether, Bush in his yearly budgets
asked for $166 million, and Congress approved about $250 million.
These budget decisions reflect a reality in Washington: to act with an
eye toward short-term political rewards instead of making long-term
investments to deal with problems.
Vincent Gawronski, an assistant professor at Birmingham Southern
College in Alabama who studies the political impact of natural
disasters, said the lost chances to shore up the levees were a classic
example of government leaders who, although meaning well, clashed over
"Elected politicians are in office for a limited amount of time and
with a limited amount of money, and they don't really have a long-term
vision for spending it," he said.
"So you spend your pot of money where you feel you're going to get the
most political support so you can get reelected. It's very difficult
to think long-term. If you invest in these levees, is that going to
show an immediate return or does it take away from anything else?"
Gawronski said flood control projects do not have the appeal of other
endeavors, such as cancer research and police protection. At the same
time, Congress habitually approves billions of dollars for highways
and bridges and other infrastructure that politically benefits
Gawronski called it inexcusable for the United States to have been
"gambling so long" that the old levee system in New Orleans would
"Disasters are often low probability, high consequence events, so
there's a gamble there," he said. "It's not going to happen on my
watch, there's the potential it might, but I'll bet it won't."
In the case of New Orleans and flood control, another factor was at
work: the reputation of the Corps of Engineers. Over the years, many
in Washington had come to regard the Corps as an out-of-control agency
that championed huge projects and sometimes exaggerated need and
The Corps began as a tiny regiment during the Revolutionary War era;
it now employs about 35,000 people to build dams, deepen harbors, dig
ditches and erect seawalls, among other things. But critics say some
projects are make-work boondoggles.
In 2000, Corps leaders were found to have manipulated an economic
study to justify a Mississippi River project that would have cost
billions. The agency also launched a secret growth initiative to boost
its budget by 50%. And the Pentagon found in 2000 that the Corps'
cost-benefit analyses were systematically skewed to warrant
large-scale construction projects.
As a result, said a senior staffer with the Senate Appropriations
Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity, requests by the Corps
for flood control money were especially vulnerable to budget
cutting. "A lot of people just look at it as pork," said the staffer.
The Bush administration's former budget director, Mitch Daniels, was
known as an aggressive advocate for Corps reform who cast a skeptical
eye on its budget requests.
"The Army Corps of Engineers has a very large budget, and it has grown
a lot over recent years," Daniels, now the governor of Indiana,
said. "To the extent there's been any limitation of [the Corps']
budget, it has to do with previous tendencies to build marinas and
things that don't have much to do with preparing us for disaster."
The Bush White House maintains it never ignored the security needs of
the Gulf Coast. "Flood control has been a priority of this
administration from Day One," said White House Press Secretary Scott
He said hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in the New Orleans
area in recent years for flood prevention, and he said the failure of
the levees was not a matter of money so much as a problem with drawing
the right plans for the dike work and other improvements.
"It's been more of a design issue with the levees," he said.
Other administration officials said there were not enough construction
companies and equipment to handle all the work that had been proposed.
John Paul Woodley Jr., assistant secretary of the Army for Civil
Works, who has responsibility for the Corps of Engineers, said: "It's
true, we cannot accomplish all of our projects at full funding all the
time. I think that's true of any agency, particularly any public works
agency, but we had a lot of work underway in New Orleans, and I was
personally supportive of it.
"As a native of Louisiana," Woodley said, "I understand the problems
associated with flooding in New Orleans. I don't think there's any
lack of support for flood control projects in New Orleans,
particularly within the context of other projects around the country."
On Capitol Hill in recent years, several Democrats warned that more
money should be marked for the protection of New Orleans. For
instance, in September 2004, Landrieu said she was tired of hearing
there was no money to do more work on levees.
"We're told, can't do it this year. Don't have enough money. It's not
a high enough priority," she said in a Senate speech. "Well, I know
when it's going to get to be a high enough priority."
She then told of a New Orleans emergency worker who had collected
several thousand body bags in the event of a major flood. "Let's hope
that never happens," she said.
But in May 2004, then Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he
had visited the levees as a guest of Landrieu and believed them
He praised the ancient water pumps for keeping the waters from
cascading into the city, proclaiming them "these old, old pumps that
hadn't been changed since before the turn of the century, that still
keep New Orleans dry."
"It was as clean as a restaurant," he added. "These big old pumps
Today, eight of those 22 pumps are underwater and inoperable.
Over the years, several projects either were short-changed or never
got started. The Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project was
authorized by Congress after a rainstorm killed six people in May
1995. It was to be finished in 10 years, but funding reductions
prevented its completion before Katrina struck.
The Army Corps of Engineers did spend $430 million to renovate pumping
stations and shore up the levees. But experts said the project fell
behind schedule after funding was reduced in 2003 and 2004.
The Lake Pontchartrain Project was a $750-million Corps operation for
new levees and beefed-up pumping stations. Because of funding cuts, it
was only 80% complete when the hurricane hit.
The project that never was started was an examination of storm surges
from large hurricanes. Congress approved the study but did not
allocate the funds for it.
In May, Al Naomi, the Corps' senior project manager for the New
Orleans district, reminded political and business leaders and
emergency management officials that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane was
always possible. After that meeting, Walter Brooks, the regional
planning commission director, came away shaking his head.
"We've learned that we're not as safe as we thought we were," he told
the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune.
Last week, Corps commander Strock defended past work, saying, it was
his "personal and professional assessment" that work in New Orleans
was never underfunded. What he meant by that, he explained, was that
no one expected such a large disaster before all the renovations and
other improvements could be completed.
"That was as good as it was going to get," he said. " We knew that it
would protect from a Category 3 hurricane. In fact, it has been
through a number of Category 3 hurricanes."
But, he said, Katrina's intensity "simply exceeded the design capacity
of the levee."
Asked whether in hindsight he wished more had been done, Strock said:
"I really don't express surprise in my business. We don't sit around
and say 'Gee whiz.' "
Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times
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