Katrina's Unlearned Lessons

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

LAST WEEK the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers admitted responsibility for much of the destruction of New Orleans. It was not true, as the Corps initially had claimed, that its defenses failed because Congress had authorized only Category 3 protection, with the result that Hurricane Katrina overtopped the city's floodwalls. Rather, Katrina was no stronger than a Category 2 storm by the time it came ashore, and many of the floodwalls let water in because they collapsed, not because they weren't high enough. As the Corps' own inquiry found, the agency committed numerous mistakes of design: Its network of pumps, walls and levees was "a system in name only"; it failed to take into account the gradual sinking of the local soil; it closed its ears when people pointed out these problems. The result was a national tragedy.

You might think that the Corps' mea culpa would fuel efforts to reform the agency. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) are pushing a measure that would do just that, requiring that future Corps proposals be subject to technical review by an independent agency. But the stronger current in Congress goes in the opposite direction. A measure urged by Louisiana senators and written by Sens. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) would loosen oversight of the Corps. Billions of dollars may be spent in ways that ignore the most basic lessons from Katrina.

Congress has already passed laws with language directing the Corps to design a new flood-protection plan for Louisiana. The language encourages the construction of Category 5 protections for the whole state, a project that could cost tens of billions of dollars; it advertises its own profligacy by laying down that the flood-protection plan should be exempt from cost-benefit analysis. The new measure, which is reportedly part of a revised version of a water projects bill that will be unveiled shortly, would lower the bar for congressional approval of whatever Louisiana defenses the Corps sees fit to propose. Rather than requiring full votes in both chambers of Congress, the Corps' plan could be authorized by votes in two committees that tend to rubber-stamp such projects.

In the wake of Katrina, this is almost beyond belief. The Corps' admission of its own technical shortcomings points to the need for tougher oversight, not less. And the New Orleans disaster has illustrated the folly of building flood defenses for vulnerable low land: Some of the worst-hit areas would not have been developed in the first place if the Corps hadn't decided to build "protections" for them. Encouraging the Army Corps of Engineers to build Category 5 defenses for all of Louisiana, including parts that are sparsely populated for good reason, would not merely cost billions that would be better spent on defending urban areas. It would encourage settlement of more flood-prone land and set the stage for the next tragedy.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company