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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)

"The project manager for the Great Pyramids probably put in a request for 100 million shekels and only got 50 million," said John Paul Woodley Jr., the Bush administration official overseeing the Corps. "Flood protection is always a work in progress; on any given day, if you ask whether any community has all the protection it needs, the answer is almost always: Maybe, but maybe not."

The Corps had been studying the possibility of upgrading the New Orleans levees for a higher level of protection before Katrina hit, but Woodley said that study would not have been finished for years. Still, liberal bloggers, Democratic politicians and some GOP defenders of the Corps have linked the catastrophe to the underfunding of the agency.

"We've been hollering about funding for years, but everyone would say: There goes Louisiana again, asking for more money," said former Democratic senator John Breaux. "We've had some powerful people in powerful places, but we never got what we needed."

That may be true. But those powerful people -- including former senators Breaux, Johnston and Russell Long, as well as former House committee chairmen Robert Livingston and W.J. "Billy" Tauzin -- did get quite a bit of what they wanted. And the current delegation -- led by Landrieu and GOP Sen. David Vitter -- has continued that tradition.

The Senate's latest budget bill for the Corps included 107 Louisiana projects worth $596 million, including $15 million for the Industrial Canal lock, for which the Bush administration had proposed no funding. Landrieu said the bill would "accelerate our flood control, navigation and coastal protection programs." Vitter said he was "grateful that my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee were persuaded of the importance of these projects."

Louisiana not only leads the nation in overall Corps funding, it places second in new construction -- just behind Florida, home of an $8 billion project to restore the Everglades. Several controversial projects were improvements for the Port of New Orleans, an economic linchpin at the mouth of the Mississippi. There were also several efforts to deepen channel for oil and gas tankers, a priority for petroleum companies that drill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We thought all the projects were important -- not just levees," Breaux said. "Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but navigation projects were critical to our economic survival."

Overall, Army Corps funding has remained relatively constant for decades, despite the "Program Growth Initiative" launched by agency generals in 1999 without telling their civilian bosses in the Clinton administration. The Bush administration has proposed cuts in the Corps budget, and has tried to shift the agency's emphasis from new construction to overdue maintenance. But most of those proposals have died quietly on Capitol Hill, and the administration has not fought too hard to revive them.

In fact, more than any other federal agency, the Corps is controlled by Congress; its $4.7 billion civil works budget consists almost entirely of "earmarks" inserted by individual legislators. The Corps must determine that the economic benefits of its projects exceed the costs, but marginal projects such as the Port of Iberia deepening -- which squeaked by with a 1.03 benefit-cost ratio -- are as eligible for funding as the New Orleans levees.

"It has been explicit national policy not to set priorities, but instead to build any flood control or barge project if the Corps decides the benefits exceed the costs by 1 cent," said Tim Searchinger, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense. "Saving New Orleans gets no more emphasis than draining wetlands to grow corn and soybeans."


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