Before Hurricane Katrina breached a levee on the New Orleans Industrial Canal, the Army Corps of Engineers had already launched a $748 million construction project at that very location. But the project had nothing to do with flood control. The Corps was building a huge new lock for the canal, an effort to accommodate steadily increasing barge traffic.
Except that barge traffic on the canal has been steadily decreasing.
In Katrina's wake, Louisiana politicians and other critics have complained about paltry funding for the Army Corps in general and Louisiana projects in particular. But over the five years of President Bush's administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion; California was a distant second with less than $1.4 billion, even though its population is more than seven times as large.
Much of that Louisiana money was spent to try to keep low-lying New Orleans dry. But hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to unrelated water projects demanded by the state's congressional delegation and approved by the Corps, often after economic analyses that turned out to be inaccurate. Despite a series of independent investigations criticizing Army Corps construction projects as wasteful pork-barrel spending, Louisiana's representatives have kept bringing home the bacon.
For example, after a $194 million deepening project for the Port of Iberia flunked a Corps cost-benefit analysis, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) tucked language into an emergency Iraq spending bill ordering the agency to redo its calculations. The Corps also spends tens of millions of dollars a year dredging little-used waterways such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the Atchafalaya River and the Red River -- now known as the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway, in honor of the project's congressional godfather -- for barge traffic that is less than forecast.
The Industrial Canal lock is one of the agency's most controversial projects, sued by residents of a New Orleans low-income black neighborhood and cited by an alliance of environmentalists and taxpayer advocates as the fifth-worst current Corps boondoggle. In 1998, the Corps justified its plan to build a new lock -- rather than fix the old lock for a tiny fraction of the cost -- by predicting huge increases in use by barges traveling between the Port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River.
In fact, barge traffic on the canal had been plummeting since 1994, but the Corps left that data out of its study. And barges have continued to avoid the canal since the study was finished, even though they are visiting the port in increased numbers.
Pam Dashiell, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, remembers holding a protest against the lock four years ago -- right where the levee broke Aug. 30. Now she's holed up with her family in a St. Louis hotel, and her neighborhood is underwater. "Our politicians never cared half as much about protecting us as they cared about pork," Dashiell said.
Yesterday, congressional defenders of the Corps said they hoped the fallout from Hurricane Katrina would pave the way for billions of dollars of additional spending on water projects. Steve Ellis, a Corps critic with Taxpayers for Common Sense, called their push "the legislative equivalent of looting."
Louisiana's politicians have requested much more money for New Orleans hurricane protection than the Bush administration has proposed or Congress has provided. In the last budget bill, Louisiana's delegation requested $27.1 million for shoring up levees around Lake Pontchartrain, the full amount the Corps had declared as its "project capability." Bush suggested $3.9 million, and Congress agreed to spend $5.7 million.
Administration officials also dramatically scaled back a long-term project to restore Louisiana's disappearing coastal marshes, which once provided a measure of natural hurricane protection for New Orleans. They ordered the Corps to stop work on a $14 billion plan, and devise a $2 billion plan instead.
But overall, the Bush administration's funding requests for the key New Orleans flood-control projects for the past five years were slightly higher than the Clinton administration's for its past five years. Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the chief of the Corps, has said that in any event, more money would not have prevented the drowning of the city, since its levees were designed to protect against a Category 3 storm, and the levees that failed were already completed projects. Strock has also said that the marsh-restoration project would not have done much to diminish Katrina's storm surge, which passed east of the coastal wetlands.
"The project manager for the Great Pyramids probably put in a request for 100 million shekels and only got 50 million," said John Paul Woodley Jr., the Bush administration official overseeing the Corps. "Flood protection is always a work in progress; on any given day, if you ask whether any community has all the protection it needs, the answer is almost always: Maybe, but maybe not."
The Corps had been studying the possibility of upgrading the New Orleans levees for a higher level of protection before Katrina hit, but Woodley said that study would not have been finished for years. Still, liberal bloggers, Democratic politicians and some GOP defenders of the Corps have linked the catastrophe to the underfunding of the agency.
"We've been hollering about funding for years, but everyone would say: There goes Louisiana again, asking for more money," said former Democratic senator John Breaux. "We've had some powerful people in powerful places, but we never got what we needed."
That may be true. But those powerful people -- including former senators Breaux, Johnston and Russell Long, as well as former House committee chairmen Robert Livingston and W.J. "Billy" Tauzin -- did get quite a bit of what they wanted. And the current delegation -- led by Landrieu and GOP Sen. David Vitter -- has continued that tradition.
The Senate's latest budget bill for the Corps included 107 Louisiana projects worth $596 million, including $15 million for the Industrial Canal lock, for which the Bush administration had proposed no funding. Landrieu said the bill would "accelerate our flood control, navigation and coastal protection programs." Vitter said he was "grateful that my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee were persuaded of the importance of these projects."
Louisiana not only leads the nation in overall Corps funding, it places second in new construction -- just behind Florida, home of an $8 billion project to restore the Everglades. Several controversial projects were improvements for the Port of New Orleans, an economic linchpin at the mouth of the Mississippi. There were also several efforts to deepen channel for oil and gas tankers, a priority for petroleum companies that drill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We thought all the projects were important -- not just levees," Breaux said. "Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but navigation projects were critical to our economic survival."
Overall, Army Corps funding has remained relatively constant for decades, despite the "Program Growth Initiative" launched by agency generals in 1999 without telling their civilian bosses in the Clinton administration. The Bush administration has proposed cuts in the Corps budget, and has tried to shift the agency's emphasis from new construction to overdue maintenance. But most of those proposals have died quietly on Capitol Hill, and the administration has not fought too hard to revive them.
In fact, more than any other federal agency, the Corps is controlled by Congress; its $4.7 billion civil works budget consists almost entirely of "earmarks" inserted by individual legislators. The Corps must determine that the economic benefits of its projects exceed the costs, but marginal projects such as the Port of Iberia deepening -- which squeaked by with a 1.03 benefit-cost ratio -- are as eligible for funding as the New Orleans levees.
"It has been explicit national policy not to set priorities, but instead to build any flood control or barge project if the Corps decides the benefits exceed the costs by 1 cent," said Tim Searchinger, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense. "Saving New Orleans gets no more emphasis than draining wetlands to grow corn and soybeans."