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Why the Levee Broke

By Will Bunch, Attytood
Posted on September 1, 2005
Even though Hurricane Katrina has moved well north of
the city, the waters continued to rise in New Orleans
on Wednesday. That's because Lake Pontchartrain
continues to pour through a two-block-long break in
the main levee, near the city's 17th Street Canal.
With much of the Crescent City some 10 feet below sea
level, the rising tide may not stop until until it's
level with the massive lake.

There have been numerous reports of bodies floating in
the poorest neighborhoods of this poverty-plagued
city, but the truth is that the death toll may not be
known for days, because the conditions continue to
frustrate rescue efforts.

New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to
flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact,
the federal government has been working with state and
local officials in the region since the late 1960s on
major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When
flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed
six people, Congress authorized the Southeast
Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.

Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers,
tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on
shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with
$50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in
crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity
in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the
levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward
SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to
hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war
in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the
same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for
the strain. At least nine articles in the
Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite
the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of
hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

Newhouse News Service, in an article posted late
Tuesday night at The Times-Picayune Web site,
reported: "No one can say they didn't see it coming.
... Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever,
serious questions are being asked about the lack of

In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq
soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20
percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake
Pontchartrain, according to this Feb. 16, 2004,
article, in New Orleans CityBusiness:

The $750 million Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity
Hurricane Protection project is another major Corps
project, which remains about 20% incomplete due to
lack of funds, said Al Naomi, project manager. That
project consists of building up levees and protection
for pumping stations on the east bank of the
Mississippi River in Orleans , St. Bernard, St. Charles
and Jefferson parishes.

The Lake Pontchartrain project is slated to receive
$3.9 million in the president's 2005 budget. Naomi
said about $20 million is needed.

"The longer we wait without funding, the more we
sink," he said. "I've got at least six levee
construction contracts that need to be done to raise
the levee protection back to where it should be
(because of settling). Right now I owe my contractors
about $5 million. And we're going to have to pay them

On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management
chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana , told the
Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been
moved in the president's budget to handle homeland
security and the war in Iraq , and I suppose that's the
price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees
can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can
to make the case that this is a security issue for

That June, with the 2004 hurricane seasion starting,
the Corps' Naomi went before a local agency, the East
Jefferson Levee Authority, and essentially begged for
$2 million for urgent work that Washington was now
unable to pay for. From the June 18, 2004

"The system is in great shape, but the levees are
sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don't get
the money fast enough to raise them, then we can't
stay ahead of the settlement," he said. "The problem
that we have isn't that the levee is low, but that the
federal funds have dried up so that we can't raise

The panel authorized that money, and on July 1, 2004,
it had to pony up another $250,000 when it learned
that stretches of the levee in Metairie had sunk by
four feet. The agency had to pay for the work with
higher property taxes. The levee board noted in
October 2004 that the feds were also now not paying
for a hoped-for $15 million project to better shore up
the banks of Lake Pontchartrain .

The 2004 hurricane season was the worst in decades. In
spite of that, the federal government came back this
spring with the steepest reduction in hurricane- and
flood-control funding for New Orleans in history.
Because of the proposed cuts, the Corps office there
imposed a hiring freeze. Officials said that money
targeted for the SELA project -- $10.4 million, down
from $36.5 million -- was not enough to start any new
jobs. According to New Orleans CityBusiness this June

The district has identified $35 million in projects to
build and improve levees, floodwalls and pumping
stations in St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson and St.
Charles parishes. Those projects are included in a
Corps line item called Lake Pontchartrain , where
funding is scheduled to be cut from $5.7 million this
year to $2.9 million in 2006. Naomi said it's enough
to pay salaries but little else.

"We'll do some design work. We'll design the contracts
and get them ready to go if we get the money. But we
don't have the money to put the work in the field, and
that's the problem," Naomi said.

There was, at the same time, a growing recognition
that more research was needed to see what New Orleans
must do to protect itself from a Category 4 or 5
hurricane. But once again, the money was not there. As
the Times-Picayune reported last Sept. 22:

That second study would take about four years to
complete and would cost about $4 million, said Army
Corps of Engineers project manager Al Naomi. About
$300,000 in federal money was proposed for the 2005
fiscal-year budget, and the state had agreed to match
that amount.

But the cost of the Iraq war forced the Bush
administration to order the New Orleans district
office not to begin any new studies, and the 2005
budget no longer includes the needed money, he said.

The Senate was seeking to restore some of the SELA
funding cuts for 2006. But now it's too late. One
project that a contractor had been racing to finish
this summer was a bridge and levee job right at the
17th Street Canal, site of the main breach on Monday.
The levee failure appears to be causing a human
tragedy of epic proportions: "We probably have 80
percent of our city under water; with some sections of
our city the water is as deep as 20 feet. Both
airports are underwater," Mayor Ray Nagin told a radio

The Newhouse News Service article published Tuesday
night observed, "The Louisiana congressional
delegation urged Congress earlier this year to
dedicate a stream of federal money to Louisiana 's
coast, only to be opposed by the White House. ... In
its budget, the Bush administration proposed a
significant reduction in funding for southeast
Louisiana 's chief hurricane protection project. Bush
proposed $10.4 million, a sixth of what local
officials say they need."

Washington knew that this day could come at any time,
and it knew the things that needed to be done to
protect the citizens of New Orleans . But in the
tradition of the riverboat gambler, the Bush
administration decided to roll the dice on its fool's
errand in Iraq , and on a tax cut that mainly
benefitted the rich. Now Bush has lost that gamble,
big time.

The president told us that we needed to fight in Iraq
to save lives here at home. Yet -- after moving
billions of domestic dollars to the Persian Gulf --
there are bodies floating through the streets of
Louisiana . What does George W. Bush have to say for
himself now?

Will Bunch is a senior writer at the Philadelphia
Daily News and author of the blog Attytood.