Outlook: The Floodwalls of New Orleans

Michael Grunwald
Author/Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006; 12:00 PM

After Hurricane Katrina blew down the floodwalls that guarded New Orleans and drowned the city last August, all the national outrage over the tragedy was directed at the hapless FEMA and its director Michael Brown. But FEMA didn't build the floodwalls that failed -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did. And the New Orleans floodwalls weren't the first Corps project to go bad, nor will they be the last, argues Washington Post staff writer Michael Grunwald , author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise , in his Sunday Outlook article, Par for the Corps. Is there a solution to the problems with the Corps and U.S. flood control? Grunwald was online Monday, May 15, at noon ET to discuss his article, Par for the Corps , ( Post, May 14, 2006 ).

The transcript follows.


Michael Grunwald: Thanks for playing, everyone. The Post has destroyed a lot of forests to print my eyes-glazing Corps articles over the last six years, so it's nice to see that at least someone's reading. I thought Katrina would create a nation of Corps obsessives, but apparently not. It's just us.

Unfortunately, it looks like my pal and legendary Corps obsessive John Barry won't be joining us; he's meeting with a New Orleans mayoral candidate. (Hint: Not the candidate who said God sent Katrina because He was mad at America.) As much as I admire John, we don't agree about everything Corps-related, so don't blame him for anything I say.

One thing I should say up front: I'm especially grateful to all the good people at the Corps who have helped me over the years. Don't worry: the leak investigators don't seem to care about the Corps, either!


Arlington, Va.: I've been reading for years that the Corps' cost-benefit analysis was extremely biased toward completing a project. The general public doesn't seem to know much about this issue. What will it take for real change occur. Do we need a president who will make this a priority?

Michael Grunwald: In 2000, when I wrote a series of unbelievably long and boring stories about the Corps, the main point was that the Corps routinely cooked the books of its cost-benefit analyses to justify environmentally destructive boondoggles. And you're right: even when the Corps does its analysis honestly, the odds are often tilted towards construction. For example, the Corps is supposed to recommend a project if the predicted economic benefits to private interests (even just one private interest!) exceed the predicted costs to taxpayers. So most of the economic benefits that supposedly justified the Missouri project in the lede--the one the Corps official called "swine"--went to a few large landowners behind the proposed levee. In New Orleans after Hurricane Betsy, it turned out to be much better for the cost-benefit-analysis to build levees around undeveloped wetlands--therefore increasing the value of those wetlands by promoting development--than it would have been to protect the populated areas of the city. The rest is very sad history.


New Orleans, La.: The suggestion from some engineers and environmentalists that "Category 5" barrier islands and a restored wetlands would give more protection than levees seems to have been lost in all the levee angst. Has the Corps of Engineers considered this?

Michael Grunwald: I don't know of anyone who thinks that restoring wetlands and barrier islands alone will protect New Orleans. Much of the city is below sea level; it needs levees. But the Corps has put together a $14 billion plan to restore some of those wetlands and islands, which serve as hurricane speed bumps, reducing storm surges. The plan is off to a very slow start.


LaCrosse, Wis.: It must be great to have a job where you need to know so little, yet can jump to these magnificent negative conclusions about the Corps. Listening to you makes one think the Corps has done nothing for the benefit of society or our nation. This article has more wind than Katrina, however, stinks of an extreme radical agenda! The Corps has added significant benefits to this nation and our quality of life! A little balance MIGHT give your article SOME credibility, however, that might require you to do REAL work!

Michael Grunwald: I don't mind getting attacked over my Corps stories; really, it's nice that someone's reading. But this is the first time I've ever been accused of not doing my homework! I think if you're suicidal enough to go back and read my work on the Corps, you'll find that I've been painfully painstaking about this stuff. I don't think we've ever had to run a correction about any fact I've ever published about the Corps. And I always do mention that the Corps has added some benefits to this nation--for example, in this article I pointed out that its flood-control projects helped protect New Orleans from the Mississippi River. I just wrote a book where I explain how the Corps helped make South Florida safe for human habitation. But there are often unintended consequences. And many Corps projects contradict their stated objectives in hilariously documentable ways.


Leesburg, Va.: On the off chance the McCain/Feingold bill were to pass, how much of a difference would you expect it to make and what do you think it's chances of passage will be?

Michael Grunwald: The McCain/Feingold bill would require independent peer reviews of large Corps projects, and would require the Corps to prioritize its projects. The devil is always in the details, but I don't think I'll get fired if I point out that independent review probably makes sense for an agency that's gotten it so spectacularly wrong so often, and that America's water resources policy has suffered from a complete lack of prioritization. That said, I would be stunned if Congress passed even those modest reforms.


Boston, Mass. formerly of New Orleans, La.: I have no questions at all. I merely want to express my anger at the arrogant Corps of Engineers who have done shoddy work on the canals in New Orleans and sold the spineless politicians in Louisiana the nightmare called MR GO-the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

They will not have the canal walls or gates rebuilt in time of the beginning of hurricane season.

No one claims responsibility and no loses their job over this fiasco in New Orleans. I really believe that someone should go to jail over this mess.

Tell me though, in 1927 was the levee purposely broken or not to save the French Quarters?

Michael Grunwald: Thanks for the comment. Obviously, I'm kind of perplexed that more people aren't angry about an agency and its congressional protectors drowning an extremely cool city.

John is the 1927 expert, but you're right: The Corps did breach an upstream levee on purpose to save New Orleans.


Washington, D.C.: The Corps has committed itself to becoming a learning organization, which can be seen on their Headquarters' Web site. Have you heard any Corps managers talking about what they are trying to learn as an organization? Have you met any Corps managers who evidence this learning attitude?

Michael Grunwald: The Corps certainly does talk a lot about being a learning organization. I remember the commander invited me to speak to his senior leaders in 2002, and all the talk was about learning. I interviewed a bunch of them, and they all talked about making their project reviews "more rigorous" and "more credible" and more eco-sensitive. But they never seem to back off the projects that even some of their staunchest defenders will tell you are ludicrous.

So I would say they've learned better rhetoric. And after my series in 2000, they did seem to learn to keep the embarrassing stuff off email. (Not Larry Prather, though!)


Silver Spring, Md.: I really appreciated your article. Your statement that instead of a water policy, we have an earmarked hodgepodge of projects was a real eye-opener. This stuff is a little too important to deal with in this way. If Katrina didn't teach us all that lesson, then there isn't much hope, eh?

Michael Grunwald: Thanks for the comment. Some of you may have noticed that two weeks ago, I wrote a piece in Outlook about how earmarks aren't the entire pork problem. But the Corps is an excellent example of why they're part of the problem.

John's idea of a BRAC-type system is interesting, but again, I won't be holding my breath.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Michael - what are your thoughts about how Congressional Appropriators and the Office of Management and Budget are using the Corps to play political football? The Congress pressures the Corps to complete projects that are political wins for them, at the expense of the Nation's waterways program. OMB simply does not understand or cares about the value of any Corps project and does everything it can to slash the program. The result? Some inefficiencies, but mostly due to lack of real investment for projects that are sorely needed.

Michael Grunwald: I've heard from a lot of liberals who seem to think that Katrina was all President Bush's fault, but while you're right that the Corps is a political football, I don't see how OMB can be blamed for the problems with that agency. The Bush administration's budgets have zeroed out most of the truly egregious Corps projects, and have tried to shift the Corps towards necessary maintenance of existing projects as opposed to new boondoggles. That said, Congress has generally ignored the president's budgets for the Corps, and the president has gone along with it.


Annapolis, Md.: Do you have an opinion regarding Mr. Barry's suggestion for an oversight entity, what he calls a "Water Engineering Board"? Do you think it would that provide sufficient independence?

Michael Grunwald: I don't think John used the word "independent" when he described that board. He's got more confidence in the modern Corps than I do; he's focused more on their follies from a century ago. In any case, you can see from my last answer that I don't agree that interference by OMB is a pressing problem; I think the Corps, which is allegedly an executive-branch agency, could use a bit of executive-branch interference. Every modern president has tried to rein in the Corps, and just about all of them have failed.


Fairfax, Va.: Mike,

If you won't hold your breath for a BRAC type solution, then what should the Corps do in the meantime? Tell Congress that this project is a turkey, and that one is UNSAFE?

Michael Grunwald: This is an excellent question. The Corps likes to act like it's not responsible for its projects, because it merely expresses the will of Congress. But Congress doesn't approve Corps projects without an endorsement from the Corps. The Corps doesn't have to endorse projects. And it can withdraw endorsements of projects it privately considers "swine."


Baltimore, Md.: Doesn't every President's budget present a clear statement of priorities and funding allocations in accord with those priorities? It's not a question of there being no priorities, its is rather that Congress substitutes its program for the rational (i.e. policy based) one submitted by whomever the President is. One can not expect a rational program based on the power of individual members of Congress.

Michael Grunwald: Thanks for your comment. In the last couple of years, the Bush administration has pushed for more prioritization. You're right, though; Congress has ignored the push.


Washington, D.C.: Please give the exact citation of your article about pork you mentioned in Outlook a few weeks ago. Thanks.

Michael Grunwald: I'm going to post this, and maybe someone at can put up the article?


Anonymous: The Swamp

I enjoyed your book, but the hollowness of the commitment to restore the Everglades left me, well, hollow. Is there any hope? And are the gators attacking folk in Florida a sign of what's to come as the encroachment continues encroaching?

Michael Grunwald: Thanks for the kind words. I do think there's hope for the Everglades, partly because there's been so much bipartisan rhetoric about saving it; at some point there's going to be pressure for results.

Floridians are always calling animal control because there are gators in their backyards; at some point they're going to realize they're in the gators' backyards, and they're going to figure out a way of life that sustains people as well as the 69 endangered species in the Everglades. They're working on it!

_______________________ Pork by Any Other Name . . . , ( Post, April 30, 2006 )


Alexandria, Va.: I just found a nice historical note on the Heritage Foundation Web site, dated 1980, commending Carter for trying to establish rational policy on water projects:

"The President's water policy faces a serious challenge this week from the House's omnibus water projects bill, H.R. 4788, which -ignores his desire for cost-effectiveness in all projects and state cost-sharing. The $2 to $4 billion bill now being debated on the House floor goes so far-as to authorize projects without completing feasibility studies and to set precedent by authorizing federal funds for local water treatment and water supply systems. The President and environmentalists strongly criticize the legislation as pork-barrel and logrolling and charge that projects and studies ought to be economically justified and environmentally sound."

See The Water Resources Development Act of 1979

Michael Grunwald: Don't forget the cost-sharing reforms passed by President Reagan in 1986, which made boondoggles less attractive by forcing locals to pay more for them. Most of the clunkers I've written about--the Missouri project, the Yazoo Pump, etc.--have managed through political clout to evade those cost-sharing requirements.


Washington, D.C.: Here's a two part question: if the Corps of Engineers didn't do a good construction job last time, how can we be confident that a good job will be done -- by anyone-- this time?

The people of New Orleans, as demonstrated by past elections, seem to be swayed by other issues unrelated to hurricanes, we can infer that they just don't vote in their own self-interest. So there too, why should the American taxpayer have to shoulder the burden for a city of people who plainly can't be bothered to vote to protect themselves, their homes, their livelihoods and their city?

Michael Grunwald: I wrote a piece last month about why we shouldn't be too confident; maybe we can post that, too.

Your point about New Orleans, while phrased a bit nastier than I might have put it, is a reasonable one. In earlier decades, local officials actually pushed for LESS flood protection, because they didn't want to pay their share.


Va.: Apparently you both hated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Then do you have any solutions, advice, or suggestions? Harvard University grads? USDA? Betchel Corp? Illegal immigrants?

Michael Grunwald: Well, it wasn't like I was flooded by a Corps levee when I was a child. I stumbled into the Corps in 2000, and the stories I wrote were later backed up by independent investigations by the GAO, the National Academy of Sciences, and even the Army inspector general.

As for illegal immigrants: What's your point?


Arlington, Va.: What do you think is going to happen to Mr. Prather?

Michael Grunwald: I think he's going to be the butt of a lot of jokes around the office today. Otherwise, nothing.


Kingstowne, Va.: Serious question but maybe it's sounds stupid. I've seen shows where land is raised to above sea level (some huge airport off some Asian coast). Why can't N.O. be raised the same way? (if money weren't the issue of course).

Michael Grunwald: Money is the issue!

Also, the land is continuing to sink.


Vero Beach, Fla.: It's encouraging that Barry's "how to stop it" piece started as a lecture at the National Academy of Sciences, a policy-oriented body if there ever was one.

I know it's unlikely, but just maybe a reform of water policy could provide Congress and the next President with an opportunity to curtail earmarking and patronage. Meanwhile, it looks as though the Weather Channel's evil scenario for flooding in Sacramento isn't at all overwrought.

Michael Grunwald: The National Academy has already recommended independent reviews of large Corps projects. Congress immediately swung into action by doing nothing.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm not sure the BRAC model is far-fetched. BRAC was the brainchild of Dick Armey, but it required liberal support to pass. I recall there was significant support from liberals who wanted a smaller military. There also was support from defense authorizers, who frequently clashed with the appropriators.

An alliance between conservative spending-cutters and liberal environmentalists seems quite plausible.

Michael Grunwald: There is in fact a bipartisan Corps Modernization Caucus on the Hill that formed after my series in 2000. It includes staunch liberals such as Earl Blumenauer as well as staunch conservatives such as Tom Tancredo.

The problem is that it only includes about a dozen of them.


Oakton, Va.: Mike,

If we get rid of all the pork, wouldn't the nation still have vast infrastructure needs that would make OMB choke?

Michael Grunwald: Yes. But better OMB should be choking on less ridiculous spending, no?


Arlington, Va.: Thanks for shining a light onto these abusive practices. Your question about why Americans aren't angry caught my attention. Why do you think?

The highway and energy bills went through Congress with many earmarks, should we be angry about them, too? Are these water projects getting built, or just authorized and put into a holding pattern?

Michael Grunwald: I really don't know. Maybe because the love for the Corps on the Hill prevents Corps scandals from getting traction. Maybe because Corps generals in those green suits look so authoritative on television.

Maybe because I'm a bad writer.


Annapolis, Md.: Based on the factors that you've identified that influence Corps decisions (and those of Congress), do you think that increasing the non-federal share would lead to more rationally-based projects?

Michael Grunwald: Yes. Nobody likes to pay for boondoggles, even the ones that benefit your own community. That said, one could imagine a scenario where cost-sharing requirements prevented a low-income community from pursuing the vital infrastructure it needed. It's no coincidence that New Orleans has Category 5 projection from the Mississippi River; New Orleans doesn't have to help pay for those levees.


Arlington, Va: I recently heard that the Corps is using the best economic models available and do review their projects, including independent reviews. If that's true, then why do you continue to berate them?

Michael Grunwald: That sounds like the kind of logic I often hear from the Corps: They're already doing their own independent reviews!

They wouldn't really be independent then, would they?


Arlington, Va.: To follow-up, the problem with OMB is that they have repeatedly slashed funding for the Corps to such an extent - with no real rationale for the cuts- the agency can hardly meet its current financial obligations. OMB continues to the present day to punish the Corps for past wrongs. The result? Reforms installed over the past few years are masked by newly highlighted inefficiencies.

Michael Grunwald: No rationale? I don't know about that. How about ecologically destructive, economically ludicrous projects justified by manipulated cost-benefit analyses? Those may be past wrongs, but the Corps is continuing to pour money into those projects. Or, as some like to call them, "current financial obligations."


Michael Grunwald: OK, I'm going to wrap this up. Sorry I didn't get to everyone. Thanks for all your questions, and all your passion. I'm glad there are some people who really do care about this huge (and hugely important) agency.

And, as always: Hi Mom! Hi Dad!

_______________________ Katrina: The Big One Or Just a Warning Shot? , ( Post, March 26, 2006 )


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