I DEAD IN ATTIC By Chris Rose (Chris Rose Books, 158 pp., $13) BREACH OF FAITH: HURRICANE KATRINA AND THE NEAR DEATH OF A GREAT AMERICAN CITY By Jed Horne (Random House, 412 pp., $25.95) THE STORM By Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan (Viking, 308 pp., 25.95) THE GREAT DELUGE: HURRICANE KATRINA, NEW ORLEANS, AND THE MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST By Douglas Brinkley (William Morrow, 716 pp., $29.95) PATH OF DESTRUCTION: THE DEVASTATION OF NEW ORLEANS AND THE COMING AGE OF SUPERSTORMS By John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein (Little, Brown, 386 pp., $26) DISPATCHES FROM THE EDGE: A MEMOIR OF WAR, DISASTERS, AND SURVIVAL By Anderson Cooper (Harper Collins, 212 pp., $24.95)
IN 1980, THE ARMY CORPS OF Engineers had a problem in New Orleans, the kind of problem that America's water resources agency encounters all the time. Its friends in Louisiana's congressional delegation wanted the Corps to build a massive new lock on the Industrial Canal, a shipping shortcut to the Port of New Orleans, and so did its friends at the port. The Corps was eager to oblige them; it is, at heart, a public works brigade, run by engineers trained to move dirt and pour concrete. Its motto is essayons, "let us try."
And so it tried. The problem was that its numbers were not adding up. Before the Corps can build a project, it must certify to Congress that the economic benefits to anyone--in this case, the port and a few well-connected shipping firms--would exceed the cost to taxpayers. But even the agency's reliably optimistic economic models failed to nudge the lock's benefit-cost ratio above 0.5; the predicted private benefits, in other words, were less than half the expected public cost. So on June 18 the men of essayons convened a high-level meeting to work the problem. "No one feels that additional study could ever justify higher than a 0.5 [ratio]," said the top Corps planner from New Orleans, according to a transcript. "Is this correct?" "That is generally correct," replied the top Corps economist from New Orleans. "Benefits are less than 0.5 to 1," agreed the top economist from St. Louis. Staff economists Larry Prather and Don Sweeney were even more dubious of the lock. "There's no way you can economically justify that," Prather said. "The data we have will not support that," Sweeney added.
Colonel Tom Sands, the Corps commander in New Orleans, was not looking forward to telling Louisiana's power brokers the bad news. But the chief of planning for the entire Corps reminded him that when it came to evaluating projects, economy was not necessarily destiny. "There are two things to consider," he said. "1. There are regulations we must follow. 2. You can recommend a plan based on political progmation. The choice is the regular decision process or the political decision process." The planner probably meant "pragmatism," but Sands, who later retired from the Corps as a major general, had enough progmation to get the point. "Let's throw in the political considerations," he announced. And a $750 million boondoggle was born.
It has survived to this day, despite local opposition, environmental lawsuits, federal deficits, and a persistent lack of cargo on the canal. The Corps justified the lock by predicting spectacular increases in traffic--even though traffic had been plummeting for years, a fact omitted from the Corps study--but traffic has kept dropping. Still, thanks to port lobbyists such as former House Appropriations Chairman Robert Livingston, Congress and the Corps agreed in 2000 to waive most of the port's $100 million cost-share, so American taxpayers will foot almost the entire bill. "As you know, this agreement with the Corps is the result of Herculean efforts by the Louisiana delegation," another port lobbyist wrote in an internal memo. The memo singled out congressional advocates such as Republican David Vitter, who received $40,000 from the project's beneficiaries in that campaign cycle, and Democrat-turned-Republican Billy Tauzin, who was about to take over the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Democrat William Jefferson, who pushed the project even though most of his constituents in the African American neighborhood abutting the canal opposed it.
Vitter is now a U.S. senator; Tauzin is the drug industry's chief lobbyist; Jefferson is the FBI target whose $90,000 freezer gave new meaning to the phrase "cold cash." And for the Corps, the "regular decision process" is now the "political decision process." Sweeney exposed that process in 2000 when he blew the whistle on another study that his bosses had skewed to justify an even more expensive lock project--as part of a secret "Program Growth Initiative" designed to boost the Corps budget by rubber-stamping pork. Prather joined that process as he rose up the Corps ranks to become the agency's top lobbyist, but he revealed his disgust in private e-mails he had to disclose during a lawsuit, which described his agency's politically inspired projects as "swine" and "economic duds with huge environmental consequences." "We have no strategy for saving ourselves," Prather wrote. "Someone needs to be supervising the Corps."
ON MONDAY, AUGUST 29, 2005, New Orleans paid the price for the Corps's dysfunction, when Hurricane Katrina toppled the floodwalls that were supposed to protect the city, including those along the Industrial Canal. Katrina turned a vibrant city into an Atlantis, Michael Brown into a laughingstock, and Kanye West into a social critic. Its name became synonymous with bad government.
Unfortunately, America has concluded that what went wrong in Katrina was the government's response to the disaster, not the government's contribution to the disaster. The Corps has eluded the public's outrage--even though its commander finally admitted in April that his agency's "design failures" inundated New Orleans. America is now well versed in the deterioration of FEMA, but it hasn't noticed that in the years before Katrina, investigations by the Pentagon, the Government Accountability Office, and the National Academy of Sciences had all documented the Corps's follies.
In fact, in the year since Katrina, Congress has given the Corps even more money and power. The Corps is a congressional plaything; its budget consists almost entirely of "earmarks," individual pet projects requested by individual congressmen. The recent corruption scandals on Capitol Hill have prompted constant demands for "earmark reform," but little recognition that the Corps is the ultimate earmark agency. The failures of the Corps are also failures of Congress.
The Industrial Canal project may seem irrelevant to those failures, since the $750 million lock had nothing to do with the flood-control system that collapsed--but that is precisely why it stands as a perfect symbol of Katrina. The drowning of New Orleans was a tragedy of priorities, and protecting this low-lying soupbowl of a city was no one's priority. The Corps spent more in Louisiana than in any other state, but it wasted most of the money on ecologically harmful and fiscally wasteful pork that kept its employees busy and its political patrons happy, while neglecting hurricane protection for New Orleans. One of its pork projects, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, actually intensified Katrina's surge.
The devastation of Katrina, in other words, was a direct result of America's water resources policy, which is not a policy at all, but an annual scramble for appropriations. Louisiana's congressional delegation always fared exceptionally well in that scramble, but it never cared as much about averting a theoretical disaster as it cared about bringing home actual bacon. And the Corps cared about whatever Congress cared about. "Generally speaking, there was less than moderate interest in hurricane protection," Sands told me.
Katrina was a Murphy's Law fiasco; the screw-ups kept on coming. Mayor Ray Nagin was slow to declare a mandatory evacuation. His buses evacuated residents to the Superdome instead of outside the city. Many of his police officers went AWOL after the storm hit, and some seized the opportunity to relieve Wal-Marts of their merchandise. The floodwalls failed that morning, but poor communications left officials thinking New Orleans had dodged the bullet until Tuesday. FEMA was unprepared for the scope of the disaster, so survivors waited in vain for food, ice, and buses, and corpses rotted in the heat. Brown dithered while New Orleans drowned, pestering his aides about his wardrobe. The Superdome and the convention center became squalid hellholes. Nagin's police chief made matters worse by passing along myths about babies raped in the dome, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff publicly admitted he had no idea what was going on at the convention center. Bush seemed clueless, jetting to a fund-raiser, speechifying about immigration reform, continuing his vacation until several days into the crisis. And then his response was tone-deaf: his Air Force One photo-op 30,000 feet above New Orleans, his insistence that no one had anticipated a breach of the levees, and finally the immortal words, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job."
The chaos on the ground prompted a frenzy of recriminations. Nagin spewed venom at the feds. White House leakers slagged Democratic Governor Katherine Blanco. Blanco's team shot back at Bush, but also at Nagin, a fellow Democrat who had endorsed her Republican opponent. Bush eventually fired Brown, who first pointed fingers at Nagin and Blanco, and then at his bureaucratic rival Chertoff. The Corps was barely mentioned, except when some of the agency's defenders had the chutzpah to attack Bush for under-funding it. As if the problem with the rathole was insufficient cheese.
For all the complexities of the catastrophe, two basic things went wrong during Katrina. The levees broke, and the response was slow. But while both of those failures were government failures, the first was much more important. If the levees had not breached, the New Orleans bowl would not have filled, and no one would have cared about Brownie's job experience with Arabian horses. FEMA's incompetent response to Katrina did reveal the federal government's lack of preparation for a potential terrorist attack, and the disarray at the Department of Homeland Security; but it was not what killed 1,000 people and inflicted $100 billion in damage. And while it is legitimate to blame Bush for the problems at FEMA and DHS, most of his administration's proposed budget cuts for the Corps were uncharacteristically responsible efforts to block wasteful spending--which is why Congress routinely ignored them.
A slew of books now aim to tell the story of Katrina, and it is not surprising that they focus more on what happened after New Orleans ended up underwater than on how New Orleans ended up underwater. The levees failed in a matter of moments when no one was watching, while the response failed over the course of an agonizing week when the world was watching. Katrina's aftermath produced dramatic stories of narrow escapes and tragic deaths, heroism and ineptitude, mass devastation and mass migration. But the most important thing to remember about Katrina is that it was not a very powerful storm when it hit New Orleans--no stronger than a Category Two, and maybe only a Category One--so those stories were all made possible by the failures of the Corps.
Katrina was not the Big One. To their credit, almost all the post-Katrina authors seem to recognize this, even if they do not dwell on it. Jed Horne, an editor at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, came up with the perfect title for his lucid and wrenching chronicle of the storm: Breach of Faith. Ivor van Heerden makes the same point in oversized type on the back cover of his memoir The Storm: "Properly designed and constructed levees would have protected the city. Instead, they collapsed." Even the graphomaniacal historian-to-the-stars Douglas Brinkley, who is passing off a 700-page Nexis search as a book called The Great Deluge, notes that "the shoddy Army Corps engineering crippled the Greater New Orleans flood-control system." He does not say much more about the Corps, although he does say very nice things about Oprah Winfrey, Brian Williams, Bill O'Reilly, and other people who have the power to affect the fortunes of his book. Brinkley brags that he taught three college courses during the six months he took to churn out his tome. No wonder he didn't have time to think.
The most engaging of the Katrina books is 1 dead in attic, a collection of Chris Rose's columns in the Times-Picayune, packed with more heart, honesty, and wit than a thousand Douglas Brinkley media appearances. Rose was more interested in telling the searing stories of his shattered city than assigning the blame for its demise, but he did point his finger in the right direction in "Refrigerator Town," his paean to his city's appliance-littered landscape:
From Refrigerator Pulpits, the preachers said the culprits For the storm were all the lesbians and queers. But Refrigerator Church was left in quite a lurch When it turned out to be the Corps of Engineers.
No one understands this better than Times-Picayune reporters John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein, who have not only written an insightful book about Katrina, Path of Destruction, but also predicted the disaster in 2002 in a remarkable series of articles that saved lives, and would have saved more if it had been properly appreciated. McQuaid and Schleifstein can honestly say they told us so. Path of Destruction is a bit difficult to follow, but it has serious reporting and--more than any of the other Katrina books rushed to press--serious thinking. It is crammed with valuable context--on the settlement and development of New Orleans, on its hurricane history, on the decline of FEMA, and, yes, on the Corps and its levees.
The only Katrina chronicle with nothing on the Corps is Dispatches From the Edge by CNN's Anderson Cooper, who chose to focus more on CNN's Anderson Cooper. This Ken-doll anchorman has his own show, which may explain why Brinkley made sure to praise his eloquence, and why his tell-a-lot-but-not-all memoir--no, he doesn't address the questions that swirled around the actual Ken doll--soared to the top of the best-seller list. Cooper deserves praise for jetting around the world to tell depressing stories, but most of the lessons he draws from those stories involve his own extremely fascinating pain. His book is the story of a poor little rich boy--he is Gloria Vanderbilt's kid--who realizes after covering Katrina that he is drawn to tragedy because deep down he feels sad and bad about his father's death, and also about his brother's suicide. Katrina, too, makes him feel sad and bad--and also mad! The catastrophe put Cooper in touch with parts of himself he never knew existed. He now feels so deeply that he was able to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair accessorized with tears in his eyes. He is such an accomplished feeler that he can tell how other people feel without even talking to them:
Just as we come back from a commercial break, a pickup truck drives by. In the back a young man with a trucker hat holds up a tattered American flag. He salvaged it from the wreckage. He's tired and worn, but proud of that flag, proud that he and his family are still standing. We don't speak--he is too far away--but I look him in the eye and we nod to each other. In his face I think I detect betrayal and anger, but also strength and resolve. I'm on the air, but I find myself tearing up. My throat tightens; I'm almost unable to speak.
The story of how the Army Corps of Engineers drowned New Orleans does not pack the kind of emotional power that leaves telepathic TV personalities almost speechless. It is a story that takes place mostly in the fine print of technical studies and appropriation bills, long before the rooftop rescues. But it's still a story that should tighten your throat.
New Orleans was founded by French pioneers in 1718 on a "natural levee" overlooking the Mississippi, a crescent of high ground formed by the river's overflowing silt. That is why it is known as the Crescent City, and why its historic French Quarter remained relatively dry during Katrina. But New Orleans was always vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature: its early settlers immediately built a three-foot-tall levee to protect against the frequent mutinies of the Mississippi. They did not build levees against the Gulf--perhaps because they were buffered by hundreds of square miles of coastal swamps and marshes that served as hurricane speed bumps, perhaps because hurricanes were less of a presence in their lives. Still, it must be acknowledged that New Orleans was in harm's way long before the Corps came along.
All natural disasters are man-made disasters. They would be mere natural events if people would not get in the way. Floodplains tend to flood, and powerful hurricanes tend to wipe out the coastal communities in their paths. For this reason, Katrina practically obliterated the Mississippi coast after making landfall as a Category Four storm. But the devastation in Mississippi, while awful, was not exceptional (which is why Brinkley, who must be paid by the word, is the only author to devote much attention to it). What made Katrina so unusual was the collapse of the New Orleans levees.
But the levees were not really in Katrina's path, and their collapse was not the result of geography. Their failure was the result of the Corps. As Susan Glasser and I tried to explain last fall in The Washington Post, the Corps did not just create that result through engineering mistakes, which were only the assassination-of-the-archduke in the larger story of this disaster. In fact, the Corps betrayed New Orleans in five different ways.
The corps got its start as a tiny engineering regiment during the Revolutionary War, building fortifications at Bunker Hill. It still performs military engineering work for the Army, including the reconstruction of Iraq; this side of the Corps, despite its Halliburton connections, is no more or less controversial than any other military unit. But over the last two centuries, the Corps has gradually expanded into America's dominant civil engineering force, run by a small cadre of military officers but staffed by more than thirty thousand civilians, supposedly overseen by an assistant Army secretary but really reporting to congressional overseers. It used to build bridges and hospitals, as well as the Washington Monument and the Library of Congress, but today the heart of its civil mission involves water.
The Corps's water projects were not always controversial. In 1839, a captain named Henry Shreve broke up an ancient logjam on Louisiana's Red River with a snagboat he invented himself, clearing a path to a new inland port; the locals were so grateful they named it Shreveport. The Corps eventually developed much of America's water transportation network, dredging harbors for ships, manhandling unruly rivers into reliable ribbons of commerce, providing the shock troops in the nation's war on nature. Water resources were considered useless in their natural form, so Congress assigned the Corps to "improve" them into useful engines of economic development. For most of American history, that was the very definition of conservation, the "wise use" of natural resources.
Flood control was still seen as a local responsibility, but after the Civil War an egomaniacal Corps commander named Andrew Humphreys, who had lost a thousand men in fifteen minutes during a charge at Fredericksburg, coordinated a similarly disastrous assault on the Mississippi River, bullying local officials into adopting his "levees-only" policy. As levees began rising on both sides of the river--each town had an obvious incentive to build higher than the one opposite--the constricted Mississippi lashed out with increasing force, blasting crevasses through weak spots in the dikes. As John McPhee has noted, the Corps proclaimed that the river was under control "before the great floods of 1884, 1890, 1891, 1897, 1898 and 1903, and …again before 1912, 1913, 1922 and 1927."
That last one was the big one, leaving almost one million people homeless and ending the reign of New Orleans as the financial capital of the South. The flood threatened to end New Orleans altogether, but the city's bankers persuaded the Corps to dynamite a levee upstream, so two poorer parishes were wiped out instead. The Corps and its "levees-only" policy had created a catastrophic mess. Naturally, Congress assigned the agency full responsibility for controlling the river's floods, and dramatically increased its budget. It would not be the last time the Corps failed upward.
The corps devised a new plan to control the Mississippi, featuring spillways and reservoirs as well as levees high enough to contain biblical floods. When members of Congress asked Corps commander Edgar Jadwin--another general in the Humphreys mold--whether he expected them to endorse it simply because the Corps had submitted it, he replied: "Yes." The result was the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MR&T), the most ambitious and expensive federal initiative of its day. And in a departure from the usual local cost-sharing rules, American taxpayers would pay the entire price.
The project kept the Mississippi and its tributaries away from middle America's floodplains, promoting development in cities such as St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. Even during Katrina, New Orleans faced no danger from the river that had harassed its original settlers. But as with most human efforts to control nature, there were unintended consequences. The caged and armored Mississippi no longer carried as much silt from its banks and its floodplain down to its delta, so it no longer created as many of the coastal wetlands that helped to absorb storm surges from the Gulf. As the Corps choked off the river's natural land-building process, marshes began disintegrating into open water at a rate of twenty-five square miles per year. Meanwhile New Orleans began to sink, as the tremendous infusions of silt that had shored up the city's foundations no longer arrived to serve as natural fill. Overall, scientists believe the land losses raised Katrina's surge by several feet. That is the first way the Corps war on nature set the stage for last year's disaster.
The MR&T kicked off a Corps construction boom, as the agency's can-do engineers embraced the spirit of the New Deal. After a flood in Omaha, one commander shouted: "I want control of the Missouri River!" Soon he had it, thanks to a series of dams and dikes. After several floods in South Florida, the Corps built the most elaborate water-control project of its day, transforming the region from backwater to megalopolis with two thousand miles of levees and canals. Water projects became a form of currency on Capitol Hill, a conduit for congressmen to steer jobs and other goodies to constituents and contributors. And the Corps gained influential allies in the shipping, dredging, farming, and building industries, the "customers" who reaped the benefits of its work.
That work often had disastrous environmental effects; the taming of the Missouri drove the 150-million-year-old pallid sturgeon to the brink of extinction, while the Corps work in South Florida ravaged the Everglades. And presidents from both parties tried in vain to rein in the pork-peddling of the Corps. FDR's interior secretary, Harold Ickes, decried its "reckless and wastrel behavior," attributing its popularity on Capitol Hill to "the torporific effect of the pork barrel." President Eisenhower declared that "I cannot overstate my opposition to this kind of waste of public funds."
But nobody ever claimed that it was a Corps of Biologists. And there was not much that the executive branch could do to thwart congressional pork. One example was the $62 million Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a seventy-six-mile navigation shortcut to the Port of New Orleans. According to a Corps history, "the costs were shown to be high and the benefits…speculative." Opponents denounced it as a storm-surge shotgun pointed at New Orleans, a hydrological Trojan horse that would transport the Gulf into the city. But under pressure from its friends in the port and Congress, the Corps concluded the outlet was justified. In 1965, the outlet helped Hurricane Betsy ravage St. Bernard Parish, exactly as the critics had warned.
The outlet went on to destroy more than twenty thousand acres of surrounding marshlands, and never attracted much freight. But the Corps continued to spend $13 million a year dredging it. And in 2004, a Corps study predictably concluded that it should remain open, a study so shoddy the Bush administration ordered the Corps to redo it. But Katrina arrived first. And Louisiana State University researchers believe the outlet amplified its surge by as much as 40 percent. That is the second way the Corps did in New Orleans.
In the 1950's, after a series of powerful storms, Congress directed the Corps to start studying hurricane protections around the country. But nothing came of the New Orleans study until Betsy became the first storm to cause $1 billion in damages. Senate Finance Chairman Russell B. Long of Louisiana called President Johnson and urged him to have a look at the wreckage, and when Johnson offered to send his best man, Long shot back: "We are not the least bit interested in your best man." So Johnson got on a plane, and six weeks later--thanks to Louisiana congressional machers--Congress authorized a project to protect New Orleans from the Gulf. But there were two serious problems with the project, and they turned out to be the third and the fourth ways Congress and the Corps shafted New Orleans: it was not built in the right place, and it was not built to withstand a storm as fierce as Billion-Dollar Betsy.
One might think that an agency assigned to protect New Orleans from a hurricane would set out to build the best possible protection for its residents. Not so. Congress required the Corps to come up with the plan with the highest economic benefits compared to costs--regardless of who got those benefits, or the cost of destroying wetlands, or even the cost of human lives. And when the Corps ran the numbers in 1965, it concluded that the best way to produce economic benefits would be to build levees around low-lying wetlands on the city's outskirts, which would "hasten urbanization and industrialization" in unpopulated areas, which would make some landowners and developers rich.
At one hearing in 1978, back when Robert Livingston was an idealistic freshman congressman, he ripped a Corps colonel for protecting swamps instead of people. "It would seem to me that if hurricane protection to the people and properties is the paramount importance, the portion you would want to complete first would be those levees surrounding inhabited areas rather than those around uninhabited areas," he said. "Would that not be a priority, sir?" It would not. Only 21 percent of the land the Corps project aimed to protect was already developed. The rest was soggy. The Corps would make it dry, encouraging the development of thousands of homes in a vulnerable floodplain. Katrina would put it all back underwater.
Still, it is doubtful that the swamps-versus-people problem was entirely a result of the outrageous rules directing the Corps to ignore human lives. As the Industrial Canal lock shows, political progmation usually matters more than rules when it comes to Corps studies. In recent years, the Corps has been repeatedly caught manipulating its studies to justify waterworks for its "customers," from the lock on the Mississippi River that was exposed by Don Sweeney to a deepening of the Delaware River that was savaged by the GAO. Even before the Program Growth Initiative instructed Corps study managers to "get creative" in order to endorse popular projects, Corps studies were renowned for justifying the unjustifiable: the Corps green-lighted the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway by estimating costs of $300 million and initial freight traffic of 28 million tons; the actual totals were $2 billion and 1.4 million tons. So while it is possible that the Corps protected swamps instead of people out of a legalistic sense of duty, it probably didn't hurt that President Johnson's family had investments in some of those wetlands outside New Orleans. The Corps has never figured out that its real customers are the people affected by its projects, and the taxpayers who finance them.
One might also think that the agency assigned to protect New Orleans from hurricanes would plan for a worst-case scenario. Again, not so. The Corps was only authorized to plan for a "Standard Project Hurricane," a two-hundred-year storm. (By contrast, the Mississippi River levees are designed for an eight-hundred-year event.) And even though the Corps had calculated that "design storm" before Betsy, based on milder hurricanes, it did not change those calculations after Betsy. The Corps concluded that upgrading its plan to defend against a Category Four storm like Betsy would be "cost-prohibitive," so its project was only designed to stop a Category Three. And as memories of Betsy faded, so did enthusiasm for even such minimal hurricane protection. By 1976, federal investigators found that the project's completion date had slipped thirteen years; by 1982, the estimated cost had soared 1,000 percent, and the end date was drifting toward the twenty-first century.
If the Corps had kicked and screamed and begged for more money to fight storms, it almost certainly could have gotten it. But as the federal investigators noted, the Corps never asked for more money for the hurricane project: "To the contrary, the Corps has not been able to use all moneys allocated." It focused more on political monstrosities such as the Red River navigation project, a $2 billion effort to tame the river for barges that never materialized. The notion of Category Five or even Category Four protections never seemed to occur to anyone in Congress or at the Corps.
In truth, one qualification must be entered against all this Corps- and Congress-bashing: the New Orleans Levee District, the city's representatives on flood-control issues, did not even want Category Three protection. In 1982, the district urged the Corps to "lower its design standards to provide more realistic hurricane protection," suggesting that one-hundred-year defenses would be fine. That is because unlike the river levees, which were fully funded by Uncle Sam under the MR&T, hurricane levees required a local cost-share. And the levee district preferred to spend its hard-earned cash on such necessities as riverboat gambling schemes and a $2.4 million Mardi Gras fountain.
The levee district's stinginess also forced the Corps to change its strategy for keeping Lake Pontchartrain's waters out of New Orleans. The Corps wanted to build floodgates across three drainage canals that stretched from the lake into the city, but the district did not want to pay the maintenance costs for the gates. So the district persuaded Long to enact language that forced the Corps to build higher floodwalls along the canals instead of gates that could have kept lake water out of the canals in the first place. The new plan invited the enemy to the city's doorstep, assuming that the Corps would keep it out. That was a fatal assumption.
Path of Destruction, Breach of Faith, and The Storm all do an admirable job of detailing the design flaws that left New Orleans underwater. Failing to build floodgates across the three drainage canals was probably the most serious error; the floodwalls along two of the canals collapsed during Katrina, even though they were never even overtopped. Those floodwalls were also built in overly mushy soils, without appropriate reinforcement. All these flaws were the Corps's fifth contribution to the catastrophe. And so New Orleans drowned.
One of the tragedy's nauseating aspects is that in recent years, the Louisiana delegation and the Corps began to see it coming, and considered action to try to prevent it. A bipartisan coalition of Louisiana politicians and interest groups launched a crusade to revive the region's coastal wetlands and worked with the Corps on a $14 billion restoration plan. Representative Tauzin took a break from chemotherapy to testify for the plan in 2004. "We'll be faced one day with thousands of our citizens drowned and killed, people drowned like rats in the city of New Orleans," he said. But Tauzin's support for the plan had not stopped him from leading the Republican push to dismantle federal wetlands protections. Similarly, at a hearing two months before Katrina, Senator Vitter showed a simulation of a Category Four hurricane drowning New Orleans under eighteen feet of water, but Vitter's support for the plan had not stopped him from writing legislation designed to help logging companies deforest Louisiana's cypress swamps.
The restoration plan went nowhere before Katrina; in fact, Vitter helped hold it up with his logging provision. The Corps is already struggling with a $10 billion restoration plan for the Everglades, which is inflaming doubts about the agency's ability to fix its ecological mistakes. Meanwhile, coastal Louisiana still loses a football field worth of wetlands every thirty minutes.
Wetlands were clearly a priority, but not a top priority. And the same was true of levees. During the Clinton administration, Tauzin got the Corps to assess the possibility of Category Five protections, and in 2002 the Corps recommended a five-year, $12 million feasibility study. Congress never funded it. In fact, on the eve of Katrina, the Corps was still a decade away from completing its original Category Three project; it warned on its website that the New Orleans levees might not even "withstand the design storm." And it is true that the Bush administration was stingy with the Corps. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu requested $98.7 million for the project in the five years before Katrina, while the administration proposed only $22.4 million.
At least the Bush administration was consistent: it also proposed zero funding for most of the few dozen most egregious Corps boondoggles. Somehow, though, the Louisiana delegation managed to override Bush's cuts when their pork was at stake. Congress poured $1.9 billion into Corps projects in Louisiana in those five pre-Katrina years, by far the most of any state. If the delegation's top priority had been protection instead of pork, it could have gotten what it wanted. When a Corps study concluded that the cost of a New Iberia port-deepening project would be three times the benefits, Landrieu tucked a provision into an emergency funding bill for the Iraq War that ordered the Corps to redo its analysis. She didn't do that for Category Five levees. So Katrina did not change everything. It still may not have changed anything.
The Corps initially claimed that its levees had been overtopped and overwhelmed, then refused to address its culpability until New Orleans was off the front page. Vitter and Landrieu organized a "working group" of lobbyists for ports, shipping firms, energy companies, and other corporate interests to assemble Louisiana's relief request; the inflation-adjusted result would have cost more than the Louisiana Purchase. It included $40 billion for Corps projects, including the Industrial Canal lock, the New Iberia port-deepening, and other hurricane-unrelated pork. A list of "outstanding questions" from one working-group call included such pressing questions as "How much can I bill my client?"
This time the looters went too far. Congress sent the delegation back to the drawing board. A year after its aggravated assault, New Orleans remains in intensive care. The Corps is rebuilding its failed levees to their original Category Three strength. And the Big One is still on the way.