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Never Again? The Politics of Preventing Another Katrina

The Bush administration's lackluster response to one of the largest natural disasters in the nation's history has been to rely on stopgap measures and incompetent contractors, rather than devising a national plan to protect the U.S. coastline. Will it take another Katrina for the government to act? The conclusion of a three-part series.

| Wed Aug. 29, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Taking these trends into account, and working on his own time, Lopez began examining every feature of the delta landscape that could possibly offer protection from a surge wave, starting with the continental shelf and ending with evacuation routes. Stands of cypress trees, expanses of marsh grass, elevated roadways, and clusters of fishing camps all slow down a storm surge. By the spring of 2005, he had put together something called "multiple lines of defense," a radical yet intuitively simple new approach built on the notion that all the elements involved in flood control must work together—or they won't work at all. In June 2005, Lopez presented his "lines of defense" outline to the chief engineer of the Corps' New Orleans district. Nice idea, he was told. But no way the agency would implement it. "You know, the Corps tends to see itself rigidly," Lopez recalls his boss saying. "This is a good idea. But we just don't think we could do it." Katrina hit two months later.

I met Lopez at the Bonnet Carré Spillway just upriver from New Orleans. A short, compact man with flecks of gray in his hair and a heavy beard, he speaks a bit haltingly, as if he's still working things out in his head. We drove along the levee in his silver Toyota pickup, covering ground very much like the original site of New Orleans, before development covered all available space—a marsh between river and lake, part dense cypress forest, bayou waters glinting through the trees. To our right, suburban homes sat atop a low, sloping ridgeline—with both a levee and a stretch of marshland between them and Lake Pontchartrain. The lake poses the greatest threat to New Orleans, which sits on its south rim. It's not really a lake but a big salt water lagoon, connected to the Gulf of Mexico via two deep channels. During a storm it can fill like a bathtub. If the water rises high enough to top or breach the levees, it will flood most of the metro area. We stopped and hopped out onto the gravel track, gazed toward the lake, and imagined a storm surge coming our way. "When you have a wetland in front of a levee, two things will happen," Lopez explained. "Wetlands can reduce the actual elevation of the surge—trees, especially, will reduce waves and wind-driven water heights. This should be our model for development. Build on ridges, which are high to begin with. Then you'll have a back levee with wetlands on the other side. In New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, they didn't do that. They just built out to the lakefront."

During Katrina, that pattern proved disastrous. Rather than being slowed and diverted by various natural features, floodwaters simply rose adjacent to neighborhoods until the levees collapsed. And yet the flooding is only a fraction of what could happen if the remaining coastal wetlands disappear: Right now, the New Orleans area is fringed with marshes that extend for dozens of miles, literally into the Gulf of Mexico. Without them, the ocean will lap at the hurricane levees. New Orleans will become Venice, except that Venice has no hurricanes.

After Katrina, Lopez's plan was dusted off; it is now the basis of the state's coastal protection plan, and the Corps has adopted a similar notion that it dubs "Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration," or LACPR. But it will take a lot more than a new acronym to do the job.

Corps officials seem genuinely chastened by their New Orleans failures. But at the moment that it desperately needs to be innovating, the agency remains insular and plodding, driven mostly by large, wasteful projects to facilitate shipping—not hurricane protection. Neither the White House nor Congress has even tried to shake up the Corps' management in the way NASA was following its two shuttle disasters. The Corps' own post-Katrina investigation was purely an engineering endeavor; it delved only into the failure mechanisms in soil, concrete, and steel, ignoring the institutional problems.

And when the Corps does show a glimmer of initiative, the Bush administration seems determined to stifle it. Last summer, officials at the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Army squelched an early draft of the Corps' long-term flood control study; no one, including Louisiana's congressional delegation, ever got a straight answer on why. The draft contained some possible designs and solutions; the scrubbed version offered only something called "decision matrices" for figuring stuff out later. Lately, the Corps has even backed off its congressional mandate to design options for Category 5 protection. Officials now say that they're instead examining ways to repel a surge from a Katrina-like storm. That would make the city safer than it is now, but would also repeat the major strategic error of the past. Levees and other flood defenses have always been built to prevent the last disaster, not the next one. Then a bigger storm comes along.

The uncertainty about the future of hurricane protection is a perceptible drag on the entire recovery effort. And in a place where government has failed so spectacularly, on so many levels, many people no longer believe the Corps or other decision makers are acting in their best interests. That distrust has sparked the creation of several vocal citizens' groups that lobby on hurricane issues—among them the east New Orleans Vietnamese community that challenged the placement of the Old Gentilly Landfill. Its several thousand members had not been very politically active before Katrina. After the storm, disaster recovery agencies paid them little attention. In late 2005, a commission issued a controversial map, later abandoned, suggesting a moratorium on building permits in much of the city, including eastern New Orleans. "The funny thing was," said Reverend Vien Thé Nguyen, the pastor of the local Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, "as we have insulated ourselves so much, we weren't even on that map. Neither were we on the Urban Land Institute map [another early planning document], nor were we on the most recent FEMA flood map. I mean literally: We were not on the map. So now we want to make sure we are on the map. So that when they do any consideration, they better count us in."

Most New Orleanians paid little attention to the details of hurricane protection before Katrina, so this new activism can make a difference. But a process that involves congressional appropriations, the White House, the Army, the state, and a mountain of arcane engineering studies has a lot of built-in insulation against grassroots involvement.

The basic unseriousness of the federal response to Katrina has been apparent since the president addressed the nation from Jackson Square on September 15, 2005. He didn't say "never again." His carefully-worded promise was for a "flood protection system stronger than it has ever been." The bar wasn't high, and the minimalist goal has indeed been achieved.

Last winter, President Bush did sign a law granting Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states a big chunk of royalty payments from new offshore oil and gas development—money that should provide Louisiana coastal projects an estimated $13 billion over the next 30 years. But most of that money doesn't begin flowing for another decade, and the marshes could be too far gone by then.

What's needed beyond these opening bids is a genuine national commitment—not just to New Orleans, but to protecting the entire U.S. coastline. No one knows precisely how high sea levels will rise, but every inch makes a difference in how severe, and frequent, floods become. Structures that might do the job today won't be up to the task in the coming decades. Low-lying cities near the coast, such as Houston and Charleston, are particularly vulnerable, as are places with already-weak levees such as Sacramento and San Francisco. If rainfalls increase, inland river communities will also face new problems.

The Corps' old levee system was built on the assumption that all circumstances it had to confront—the land, the sea, the frequency and size of hurricanes—were more or less static. When you have all the variables accounted for, building a wall will do the trick. Today, none of the variables is stable, and they'll be less so with each passing year.

New Orleans might have been a national lab for innovative solutions. But the approach of the Bush administration has been to throw money at the problem—or rather, at contractors. The centerpiece of the rebuilding effort, for example, is called the "Road Home," and is intended to reimburse people for their damaged homes so they can either rebuild or cash out their property. But the $7.5 billion in federal funds flowed through the state bureaucracy and then to an incompetent contractor, Virginia-based ICF International. The result was an estimated $5 billion shortfall and long delays in distributing the money. As applications continued to come in, overwhelmed officials announced they would stop taking them effective July 31, over the objections of community groups. By then, the program had closed out only 22 percent of its applications and distributed $2.7 billion.

As new environmental threats appear, it's going to become more and more obvious that the nation's political levees are just as poorly designed as those that failed New Orleans two years ago. Sadly, it may take more Katrinas to get the bureaucracy reengineered. "Just as we discovered the levees are made out of crap, we discovered the whole water resources and flood protection system is also built out of crap," said Oliver Houck, a Tulane University law professor who has followed the issue for decades. "It's like the Wizard of Oz—you pull back the curtain and there's nobody back there."

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