Politico: Isaac triggers criticism of levee system
By: Jessica Meyers
It's always the levees. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, ruptured levees gave lawmakers a bully pulpit for all things wrong with the country's infrastructure priorities. Now fortified levees are evoking the shouts.
Hurricane Isaac's August torrent caused more than flooding outside New Orleans's $14.6 billion levee system. It brewed another storm.
Those waterlogged communities have shifted attention back to lagging responsibilities of the Army Corps of Engineers and continued inadequacies in the federal levee system.
Isaac is new ammunition.
"The federal government and the taxpayers are going to continue to waste millions and millions of dollars, not only in south Louisiana but in areas all over the country until they build the right kind of flood protections," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), head of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, told POLITICO.
She wants a more expansive federal levee system - one that would have protected the parishes beyond New Orleans - and the money to pay for it.
Local communities maintain more than 85 percent of the country's levees. Many have aged more than half a century. But barriers to federal assistance remain strong: a severe shortage of funding, a backlog of Army Corps projects that dates back decades and a tide of free-market lawmakers less interested in bailing out soggy states.
"The reality of our situation is we rarely receive sufficient funding to prosecute them to our full capacity," Major Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley Division, told reporters in Jefferson Parish, La., last week after a hearing on the Isaac recovery. "[It's] simply because the nation is in a position where we can't fund everything that everyone wants."
Since 2007, the corps' budget for new construction has decreased almost 30 percent. Its annual construction budget now sits around $2 billion.
The corps is investigating whether the New Orleans levees affected flooding in the outlying areas. Most experts point instead to the ramifications of a slow-moving storm and applaud the extensive new system that kept New Orleans safe.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who regularly touts his disdain for the Army Corps, still holds the agency responsible. A number of the areas had projects on the book "that have taken forever and dragged on forever or been canceled since post-Katrina," he said at the hearing. "That's more than frustrating. That's really maddening."
The Louisiana senators are strategically placed. Landrieu sits on the committee that distributes Army Corps funding. Vitter holds a spot on the Environment and Public Works Committee that authorizes it.
But it's unlikely Congress will take up a levee cause. The EPW committee has a narrow window even to come up with a reauthorization bill this session. A bill this summer by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), which would have allowed the government to build permanent levees on flood-prone land it bought out, cleared the Senate but failed in the House. Infrastructure improvements in general have received scant attention this election cycle.
For years, the American Society of Civil Engineers has advocated for a national levee safety program with little success. The organization gave U.S. levees a D-minus in its 2009 report card. And a number of Republican lawmakers, including Vitter, appear less inclined to create more federal levees as much as reduce the corps' authority to do so.
"Look, we understand that here in Washington resources are scarce," Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) said in an interview. "If the federal government would simply give Louisiana its due in offshore royalty payments like the land states get for their offshore royalties, then we would fix it ourselves."
He argues that protections are "vital to national security interests" because of Louisiana's oil revenues and coastal access. State officials use that line to plea for more directed funding - and more effective oversight.
"We can spend and tax ourselves and develop the most efficient process," said Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, at last week's hearing. "But until we get sustainable management, it's difficult to get ahead."
He compared the corps to a college student and told the agency to "get a job."
H.J. Bosworth, research director for Levees.Org, believes such disconnect between the state and the feds has underscored preparation.
"There is no discussion outside the corps and Congress about the hydrological issues in the U.S." he told POLITICO. "Each state has its own engineers. And they make some recommendations that largely fall on deaf ears." Isaac also illustrates the difficulty of anticipating events that don't adhere to precedent.
"The idea that you can get rid of every piece of risk and maintain everything with global warming and the changes in the climate - I don't know if that's possible," said Robert Traver, a Villanova University engineering professor and chairman of an ASCE committee exploring flood safety policies. Hurricane Katrina helped overhaul how levees are designed, monitored and inspected. Isaac will go down either as an instigator of further change or a reminder of persisting challenges.
"Let's do it right this time while we have the opportunity," Landrieu said. "This is a disaster waiting to happen."