Budget Cuts Delayed New Orleans Flood Control Work
WASHINGTON — Bush administration funding cuts forced federal engineers to delay improvements on the levees, floodgates and pumping stations that failed to protect New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters, agency documents showed on Thursday.
The former head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that handles the infrastructure of the nation’s waterways, said the damage in New Orleans probably would have been much less extensive had flood-control efforts been fully funded over the years.
"Levees would have been higher, levees would have been bigger, there would have been other pumps put in," said Mike Parker, a former Mississippi congressman who headed the engineering agency from 2001 to 2002.
"I’m not saying it would have been totally alleviated but it would have been less than the damage that we have got now."
Eighty percent of New Orleans was under water after Katrina blew through with much of the flooding coming after two levees broke.
A May 2005 Corps memo said that funding levels for fiscal years 2005 and 2006 would not be enough to pay for new construction on the levees.
Agency officials said on Thursday in a conference call that delayed work was not related to the breakdown in the levee system and Parker told Reuters the funding problems could not be blamed on the Bush administration alone.
Parker said a project dating to 1965 remains unfinished and that any recent projects would not have been in place by the time the hurricane struck even if they had been fully funded.
"If we do stuff now it’s not going to have an effect tomorrow," Parker said. "These projects are huge, they’re expensive and they’re not sexy."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration had funded flood control efforts adequately.
Tensions over funding for the New Orleans levees emerged more than a year ago when a local official asserted money had been diverted to pay for the Iraq war. In early 2002, Parker told the U.S. Congress that the war on terrorism required spending cuts elsewhere in government.
Situated below sea level, New Orleans relied on a 300-mile
network of levees, floodgates and pumps to hold back the waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
Levees were fortified after floods in 1927 and 1965, and Congress approved another ambitious upgrade after a 1995 flood killed six people.
Since 2001, the Army Corps has requested $496 million for that project but the Bush administration only budgeted $166 million, according to figures provided by the office of Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Congress ultimately approved $250 million for the project during that time period.
Another project designed to shore up defenses along Lake Pontchartrain was similarly underfunded, as the administration budgeted $22 million of the $99 million requested by the Corps between 2001 and 2005. Congress boosted spending on that project to $42.5 million, according to Landrieu’s office.
"It’s clear that we didn’t do everything we could to safeguard ourselves from this hurricane or from a natural disaster such as Katrina but hopefully we will learn and be more prepared next time," said Landrieu spokesman Brian Richardson.
The levee defenses had been designed to withstand a milder Category Three hurricane and simply were overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina, said senior project manager Al Naomi.
"The design was not adequate to protect against a storm of this nature because we were not authorized to provide a Category Four or Five protection design," he said.
A study examining a possible upgrade is under way, he said.