The Slow Drowning of New Orleans

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By Michael Grunwald and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 9, 2005

Two months before Hurricane Katrina, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) gave a chilling preview of its rampage. "This isn't a simulation of World War III, or 'The Day After Tomorrow,' or Atlantis -- but one day, it may be Atlantis," Vitter warned at a hearing. Then he displayed a computer model of a Category 4 hurricane smashing New Orleans and flooding the city under 18 feet of water.

"It's not a question of if," Vitter said. "It's a question of when."

New Orleans had always been described as a disaster waiting to happen, a city in a bowl below sea level. Vitter accused the federal government of neglecting the city's man-made and natural protections -- by underfunding levees that were designed only for a Category 3 storm and stalling a massive plan to restore Louisiana's tattered web of coastal marshes.

"Instead of spending millions now, we are going to spend billions later," he said.

But as Vitter was forecasting destruction, he was also holding up legislation that would have approved levee upgrades and launched the coastal restoration plan. And the holdup involved an industry-backed provision that Vitter had inserted to help Louisiana's loggers deforest cypress swamps, which would reduce the natural hurricane defenses the restoration was supposed to rebuild.

The drowning of New Orleans was caused by complex factors of weather, geography, history, politics and engineering, but it was at heart a tragedy of priorities -- not just Vitter's, but America's. For years, it was common knowledge in Louisiana and Washington that New Orleans could be destroyed by a hurricane. But decision makers turned away from the long-term investments that might have averted a catastrophe, pursuing instead projects with more immediate payoffs. Some of those projects made the city more vulnerable.

Saving New Orleans from the inevitable storm was a priority. But it was rarely the top priority. "I don't think anybody threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue about it," recalled lobbyist Jan Schoonmaker, an aide to former representative Lindy Boggs (D-La.).

The story of how New Orleans ended up underwater begins with its founding nearly 300 years ago, at the liquid crossroads of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. But that precarious geography was not destiny. A review of several decades of decisions by officials responsible for defending New Orleans -- especially the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Congress -- shows that the nation's dysfunctional system for selecting, funding and designing water projects helped seal the city's fate.

Local officials often resisted proposals to protect their communities from storms because they did not want to pay their share of federal projects. But it was the Corps and Congress that ultimately had the power and the resources to safeguard New Orleans.

The Corps is America's water resources agency, but America does not have a water resources policy. The Corps budget consists almost entirely of "earmarked" projects requested by members of Congress, and its priorities are set almost exclusively by the annual race for appropriations. Louisiana's congressional delegation traditionally dominated that race, but eyes were usually on prizes that had nothing to do with hurricane protection. Louisiana gets more Corps funding than any other state, but protection against a Category 5 storm was not sought until it was too late.

For decades, the Corps has waged an unrelenting war on nature to protect New Orleans from the Mississippi River, but one result has been the destruction of wetlands that helped protect the city from the sea. And when Corps engineers finally took up hurricane protection in the 1960s, they designed projects based on economic analyses that did not take into account the cost of human lives but promoted development of low-lying wetland.

"We don't have a water agenda in this country that makes any sense," said Mark Davis, the head of a nonpartisan coalition that has lobbied with limited success to restore Louisiana's coast. "Our policy is just to keep spending money. And we just paid a staggering price for it."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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