Largess in Louisiana

Money Flowed to Questionable Projects

A soldier from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division helps evacuate Leroy Leaper, who decided to leave the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Some residents of the ward vowed that they would not leave, even though much of the largely impoverished neighborhood remained underwater. Story, A18.
A soldier from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division helps evacuate Leroy Leaper, who decided to leave the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Some residents of the ward vowed that they would not leave, even though much of the largely impoverished neighborhood remained underwater. Story, A18. (By Steven Senne -- Associated Press)

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By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005

Before Hurricane Katrina breached a levee on the New Orleans Industrial Canal, the Army Corps of Engineers had already launched a $748 million construction project at that very location. But the project had nothing to do with flood control. The Corps was building a huge new lock for the canal, an effort to accommodate steadily increasing barge traffic.

Except that barge traffic on the canal has been steadily decreasing.

In Katrina's wake, Louisiana politicians and other critics have complained about paltry funding for the Army Corps in general and Louisiana projects in particular. But over the five years of President Bush's administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion; California was a distant second with less than $1.4 billion, even though its population is more than seven times as large.

Much of that Louisiana money was spent to try to keep low-lying New Orleans dry. But hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to unrelated water projects demanded by the state's congressional delegation and approved by the Corps, often after economic analyses that turned out to be inaccurate. Despite a series of independent investigations criticizing Army Corps construction projects as wasteful pork-barrel spending, Louisiana's representatives have kept bringing home the bacon.

For example, after a $194 million deepening project for the Port of Iberia flunked a Corps cost-benefit analysis, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) tucked language into an emergency Iraq spending bill ordering the agency to redo its calculations. The Corps also spends tens of millions of dollars a year dredging little-used waterways such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the Atchafalaya River and the Red River -- now known as the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway, in honor of the project's congressional godfather -- for barge traffic that is less than forecast.

The Industrial Canal lock is one of the agency's most controversial projects, sued by residents of a New Orleans low-income black neighborhood and cited by an alliance of environmentalists and taxpayer advocates as the fifth-worst current Corps boondoggle. In 1998, the Corps justified its plan to build a new lock -- rather than fix the old lock for a tiny fraction of the cost -- by predicting huge increases in use by barges traveling between the Port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River.

In fact, barge traffic on the canal had been plummeting since 1994, but the Corps left that data out of its study. And barges have continued to avoid the canal since the study was finished, even though they are visiting the port in increased numbers.

Pam Dashiell, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, remembers holding a protest against the lock four years ago -- right where the levee broke Aug. 30. Now she's holed up with her family in a St. Louis hotel, and her neighborhood is underwater. "Our politicians never cared half as much about protecting us as they cared about pork," Dashiell said.

Yesterday, congressional defenders of the Corps said they hoped the fallout from Hurricane Katrina would pave the way for billions of dollars of additional spending on water projects. Steve Ellis, a Corps critic with Taxpayers for Common Sense, called their push "the legislative equivalent of looting."

Louisiana's politicians have requested much more money for New Orleans hurricane protection than the Bush administration has proposed or Congress has provided. In the last budget bill, Louisiana's delegation requested $27.1 million for shoring up levees around Lake Pontchartrain, the full amount the Corps had declared as its "project capability." Bush suggested $3.9 million, and Congress agreed to spend $5.7 million.

Administration officials also dramatically scaled back a long-term project to restore Louisiana's disappearing coastal marshes, which once provided a measure of natural hurricane protection for New Orleans. They ordered the Corps to stop work on a $14 billion plan, and devise a $2 billion plan instead.

But overall, the Bush administration's funding requests for the key New Orleans flood-control projects for the past five years were slightly higher than the Clinton administration's for its past five years. Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the chief of the Corps, has said that in any event, more money would not have prevented the drowning of the city, since its levees were designed to protect against a Category 3 storm, and the levees that failed were already completed projects. Strock has also said that the marsh-restoration project would not have done much to diminish Katrina's storm surge, which passed east of the coastal wetlands.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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