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Critics Say Bush Undercut New Orleans Flood Control

By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 2, 2005

President Bush repeatedly requested less money for programs to guard against catastrophic storms in New Orleans than many federal and state officials requested, decisions that are triggering a partisan debate over administration priorities at a time when the budget is strained by the Iraq war.

Even with full funding in recent years, none of the flood-control projects would have been completed in time to prevent the swamping of the city, as Democrats yesterday acknowledged. But they said Bush's decision to hold down spending on fortifying levees around New Orleans reflected a broader shuffling of resources -- to pay for tax cuts and the Iraq invasion -- that has left the United States more vulnerable.

The complaints showed how the Hurricane Katrina disaster is prompting the same recriminations that surround nearly all subjects in the capital's current angry mood. The reaction was in contrast to the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when for a season partisan politics was largely suspended and Bush had the backing of the opposition party.

A main point of controversy hinges on what until now were obscure decisions in the annual budget process, marked by routine tensions between agencies and local congressional delegations on one side and White House budget officials on the other.

In recent years, Bush repeatedly sought to slice the Army Corps of Engineers' funding requests to improve the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain, which Katrina smashed through, flooding New Orleans. In 2005, Bush asked for $3.9 million, a small fraction of the request the corps made in internal administration deliberations. Under pressure from Congress, Bush ultimately agreed to spend $5.7 million. Since coming to office, Bush has essentially frozen spending on the Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for protecting the coastlines, waterways and other areas susceptible to natural disaster, at around $4.7 billion.

As recently as July, the White House lobbied unsuccessfully against a plan to spend $1 billion over four years to rebuild coastlines and wetlands, which serve as buffers against hurricanes. More than half of that money goes to Louisiana.

At the same time, the president has reorganized government to prepare for possible terrorist attacks, folding emergency-response agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the Department of Homeland Security. Bush said government functions needed to be streamlined to allow for better communications among agencies and speedier responses to terrorist attacks and other crises.

"Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan, adding that the administration in recent years has dedicated a total of $300 million for flood control in the New Orleans area. Beyond that, he dismissed questions about specific projects as mere partisan sniping. "This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics," McClellan said.

The Corps of Engineers, which worked closely with White House officials on its response, went to the defense of the administration, denying that additional money would have made a difference this week because the defenses of New Orleans were designed to withstand a Category 3 storm, not a Category 4 hurricane such as Katrina. "It was not a funding issue," said Carol Sanders, the chief spokeswoman for the corps. "It's an issue of the design capabilities of these projects."

But a growing number of Democrats are pointing to stalled relief efforts, substandard flood protection systems and the slow pace of getting military personnel to the hardest-hit areas as evidence of a distracted government.

"It is hard to say, but it is true: There was a failure by [Bush] to meet the responsibility here," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). "Somebody needs to say it."

Is the National Guard "depleted because so many Guard are in Iraq that we don't have the opportunity to activate civil control?" asked Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). "That question has to be asked." Almost one in three National Guardsmen in Louisiana is serving in Iraq or war-related efforts, according to the National Guard.

Michael Parker, who was forced by Bush to resign as assistant secretary of the Army for civil works after accusing the White House of shortchanging the Corps of Engineers, said the culprit is not the president but government-wide resistance to investing long-term in projects such as flood control.

"You have watched during a period of 72 hours a modern city of New Orleans [become] a Third World country, and it is all because of the disintegration of infrastructure," Parker said. "Everybody is to blame -- it transcends administrations. It transcends party."

Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, said the biggest institutional obstacle to protecting levees and bridges and waterways is the Office of Management and Budget, which has sought to rein in the Corps of Engineers' budget under Bush and predecessors. Critics say the corps sometimes works with lawmakers to secure congressional spending authority on wasteful programs.

Local and federal officials have long warned that funding shortages in the New Orleans area would have consequences. They sounded the alarm as recently as last summer when they complained that federal budget cuts had stopped major work on New Orleans east bank hurricane levees for the first time in 37 years. Al Naomi, the senior project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, reported at the time that he was getting only half as much money as he needed and that much of the funding was being used to pay contractors for past work.

"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 told the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Walter Maestri, the emergency management chief in Jefferson Parish (county), at the time linked the funding shortfall to the cost of the Iraq war. "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," he told the newspaper. Maestri added, "For us, this levee is part and parcel of homeland security because it helps protect us 365 days a year."

One project that has drawn attention in recent days is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, commonly called SELA, which began a decade ago to improve flood protection in a network of improved drainage canals and pump stations in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

The project, which is supposed to cost $744 million overall, has been shortchanged recently, according to advocates. The corps said it needed $62.5 million next fiscal year; Bush proposed $10.5 million.

This provoked howls of protest from the Louisiana congressional delegation. "All of us said, 'Look, build it or you're going to have all of Jefferson Parish under water,' " recalled former senator John Breaux, a Democrat who is a Bush ally. "And they didn't, and now all of Jefferson Parish is under water."

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