Corps Outlines Plan to Protect Louisiana

A worker cleans a rebuilt levee along  New Orleans's Industrial Canal in the Lower Ninth Ward, which   was flooded when  Hurricane Katrina hit last year.
A worker cleans a rebuilt levee along New Orleans's Industrial Canal in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was flooded when Hurricane Katrina hit last year. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Army Corps of Engineers has outlined a preliminary plan to protect Louisiana from hurricanes and their storm surges that is likely to cost tens of billions of dollars.

The report, which the Corps delivered to Capitol Hill late Monday, did not include specific recommendations on how to proceed but envisions a patchwork of levees and natural barriers aimed at withstanding a range of storms.

In November, Congress instructed the Corps to write an "analysis and design" report within six months on how to protect Louisiana against storms as intense as a Category 5 hurricane, with winds above 155 mph. While an engineering appendix to the report includes an outline for levees that would stretch all across the state, project manager Al Naomi said in an interview yesterday that the agency has not decided where to construct levees.

"You're dealing with an extraordinarily complicated phenomenon that's going to require more than six months of effort," Naomi said. "Any rush to judgment is, at this point, very premature."

Tom Waters, who directs policy and planning for the Corps, said the agency was focused on constructing "multiple lines of defense" that would include restoring natural barriers as well as building structural defenses against hurricanes.

"This is not going to be the Great Wall of Louisiana," Waters said. "The absolute intent is a hybrid approach of coastal restoration and a levee system."

The report came under immediate fire from both environmentalists and lawmakers, who questioned whether the plan was feasible and would protect the state's residents.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who authored the language ordering the report, said in an interview it has no specifics and fails to provide a concrete road map for how to guard her state against another catastrophe. She also questioned why a set of five flood protection recommendations developed by a team of Corps and state officials did not make it into the final report.

"We're going to continue to press the Corps and the Congress to help Louisiana and the Gulf Coast . . . to come up with a protection system that, while nothing is fail-safe, is something that will work to help the people and the economy of southeastern Louisiana that's so important to the nation," she said.

The report indicates the Corps is considering building levees of between 30 and 60 feet high to hold back water from intense hurricanes: "The result is a barrier with elevations larger than any existing levee, in some locations by a factor of two." It shies away from seeking to protect the entire state from major storms, however, calling it "an unrealistic solution. . . . A wiser approach would seem to be to manage storm surges rather than to simply repel them."

The agency did not provide a specific cost estimate for its preliminary protection plan, but Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works John Paul Woodley Jr. wrote in a letter accompanying the report, "The estimated cost of a comprehensive full range of measures, or even significant elements of such measures, is likely to be measured in double-digit billions of dollars."

G. Paul Kemp, an associate professor at Louisiana State University's School of the Coast and Environment and director of the Natural Systems Modeling Laboratory, called the Corps' proposal "not feasible."

"Where's the engineer who will step up and say that? This report doesn't seem to have in it the urgency, the desperation that we feel here," he said.

Tulane University law professor Oliver A. Houck, who directs the university's environmental law program, said the Corps now runs the risk of building levees that will encourage Louisianans to relocate behind structures that cannot protect them in the decades to come.

"It's like deciding you're going to have your transportation based on dinosaurs. It's a proven failure," Houck said. "The soils can't support it; the money can't support it. People are going to move in behind it, and they're going to get drowned."

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