Par for the Corps

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By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, May 14, 2006

In 2000, when I was writing a 50,000-word Washington Post series about dysfunction at the Army Corps of Engineers, I highlighted a $65 million flood-control project in Missouri as Exhibit A. Corps documents showed that the project would drain more acres of wetlands than all U.S. developers do in a typical year, but wouldn't stop flooding in the town it was meant to protect. FEMA's director called it "a crazy idea"; the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional director called it "absolutely ridiculous."

Six years later, the project hasn't changed -- except for its cost, which has soared to $112 million. Larry Prather, chief of legislative management for the Corps, privately described it in a 2002 e-mail as an "economic dud with huge environmental consequences." Another Corps official called it "a bad project. Period." But the Corps still wants to build it.

"Who can take this seriously?" Prather asked in his e-mail. That's a good question to ask about the entire civil works program of the Corps.

It came up occasionally in 2000, when Pentagon investigators, the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Sciences were documenting the agency's ecologically disastrous, economically dubious, politically inspired water projects.

Then the Corps failed to protect New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, despite spending more in Louisiana than in any other state. Last month, the Corps commander acknowledged that his agency's "design failure" led to the floodwall collapses that drowned New Orleans. So why isn't everyone asking questions about the Corps and its patrons in Congress?

Somehow, America has concluded that the scandal of Katrina was the government's response to the disaster, not the government's contribution to the disaster. The Corps has eluded the public's outrage -- even though a useless Corps shipping canal intensified Katrina's surge, even though poorly designed Corps floodwalls collapsed just a few feet from an unnecessary $750 million Corps navigation project , even though the Corps had promoted development in dangerously low-lying New Orleans floodplains and had helped destroy the vast marshes that once provided the city's natural flood protection.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's failures didn't inundate a city, kill 1,000 residents and inflict $100 billion in damages. Yet FEMA is justifiably disgraced, while Congress keeps giving the Corps more money and more power. A new 185-point Senate report on what went wrong during Katrina waits until point No. 65 to mention the Corps "design and construction deficiencies" that left New Orleans underwater. Meanwhile, a new multibillion-dollar potpourri of Corps projects is nearing approval on Capitol Hill.

That's because the Corps is an addiction for members of Congress, who use its water projects to steer jobs and money to their constituents and contributors. President Bush has opposed dozens of the most egregious boondoggles, but Congress has kept funding them and the Corps has refused to renounce them -- while New Orleans has remained vulnerable.

Even Prather, the agency's public representative on the Hill, complained in that private e-mail that the Corps has sacrificed its credibility by defending its indefensible projects -- he called them "swine" -- just as the Catholic Church defended its wayward priests.

"We have no strategy for saving ourselves," he wrote. "Someone needs to be supervising the Corps."

The Torporific Pork Barrel

The Corps is one of the oldest and oddest federal agencies.

It got its start as an engineering regiment during the Revolutionary War, building fortifications at Bunker Hill. It is still run by Army officers, and it still oversees military projects such as the reconstruction of Iraq. But most of its 35,000 employees are now civilians working on civilian projects -- deepening ports; replenishing beaches; draining wetlands for agriculture and development; and taming rivers for barge traffic, flood control and hydropower. Officially the Corps is a Pentagon agency, but it functions like a congressional preserve; its civil works budget consists almost entirely of earmarks requested by individual members of Congress and endorsed by the Corps.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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