New Orleans Levees Underfunded, Incomplete, Congress Told

WASHINGTON, DC, September 29, 2005 (ENS) - The hurricane protection levees surrounding New Orleans were a work in progress that was chronically underfunded, a top natural resources official with the investigative branch of Congress told a House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. The levees broke in many places during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, flooding the bowl-shaped city and causing billions of dollars worth of damage and the loss of an undetermined number of lives.

Anu Mittal, one of five directors on the Government Accountability Office's (GAO) Natural Resources and Environment team, told the legislators that Congress first authorized the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity, Louisiana Hurricane Protection Project in the Flood Control Act of 1965.

The project was to construct a series of control structures, concrete floodwalls, and levees to provide hurricane protection to areas around Lake Pontchartrain she told the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

The project, when designed, was expected to take about 13 years to complete and cost about $85 million, Mittal said. Although federally authorized, it was a joint federal, state, and local effort.

flooded

Floodwaters still surround homes and business in the southern areas of the city. Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29. (Photo by Winn Henderson courtesy FEMA)
But the Lake Pontchartrain hurricane project has been under construction for nearly 40 years, much longer than originally envisioned and at much greater cost, and the project is still not complete.

Critics of the Bush administration's Hurricane Katrina response have charged that the levees broke because the administration diverted funding that might have gone to finish the project to pay for the war in Iraq or for tax cuts.

But Mittal said the floodwalls along the drainage canals that were breached "were complete when the hurricane hit."

"Whether the state of completion of the project played a role in the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 is still to be determined as are issues related to whether a project designed to protect against Category 4 or 5 hurricanes would or could have prevented this catastrophe," she said.

The original project designs were developed based on the equivalent of what is now called a fast-moving Category 3 hurricane that might strike the coastal Louisiana region once in 200 to 300 years.

When Hurricane Katrina struck, the project, including about 125 miles of levees, was estimated to be from 60 to 90 percent complete in different areas with an estimated completion date for the whole project of 2015.

As GAO reported in 1976 and 1982, since the beginning of the project, the Corps has encountered project delays and cost increases due to design changes caused by technical issues, environmental concerns, legal challenges, and local opposition to portions of the project.

As a result, in 1982, project costs had grown to $757 million and the expected completion date had slipped to 2008.

But the GAO believes that none of the changes made to the project had any role in the levee breaches recently experienced "as the alternative design selected was expected to provide the same level of protection," Mittal said.

In fact, Corps officials believe that flooding would have been worse if the original proposed design had been built, she said.

floodwall

Army Corpsman surveys the damage done by Hurricane Katrina to a New Orleans floodwall. Water entered the city through nine breaches in the walls. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps)
The current estimated cost of construction for the completed project is $738 million with the federal share being $528 million and the local share $210 million.

Federal allocations for the project were $458 million as of the enactment of the fiscal year 2005 federal appropriation.

This represents 87 percent of the federal governmentís responsibility of $528 million with about $70 million remaining to complete the project.

Over the last 10 fiscal years - 1996-2005 - federal appropriations have totaled about $128.6 million and Corps reprogramming actions resulted in another $13 million being made available to the project, Mittal calculated.

During that time, appropriations have generally declined from about $15-20 million annually in the earlier years to about $5-7 million in the last three fiscal years.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' project fact sheet from May 2005 noted that the Presidentís budget request for fiscal years 2005 and 2006, and the appropriated amount for fiscal year 2005 were insufficient to fund new construction contracts.

The Corps had stated that it could spend $20 million in fiscal year 2006 on the project if the funds were available, noting that several levees had settled and needed to be raised to provide the level of protection intended by the design.

Lieutenant General Carl Strock, Chief of Engineers also testified, telling the committee members that the Corps of Engineers is performing a detailed assessment of the levee system.

Strock

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Lieutenant General Carl Strock (Photo courtesy USACE)
"The 17th Street and London Canal levees have been closed and repaired," he said Wednesday. "The levees in Plaquemines Parish are being repaired now. There were a total of nine levee breaks, including the deliberate levee breaks we made to assist in the un-watering of New Orleans."

"Prior to Hurricane Rita," said General Strock, "we were making steady progress on pumping out floodwaters from the city of New Orleans. The arrival of Hurricane Rita and the subsequent flooding of parts of the New Orleans area will impact the schedules for un-watering some areas."

Predictions of how long it will take before the city is pumped out are "difficult until more information is known about the extent of new flooding and pump capacity," said General Strock.

Work continues at the overtopped breach sites along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal. Water levels in the canal have dropped more than four feet since the overtopping on Friday and water has stopped flowing over the east and west side breach areas, the general said. "It is expected to take about one week to un-water the 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish once pumping operations begin later this week," he said.

Finally, John Paul Woodley, Jr., assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, told the committee that the Corps of Engineers will "work with the state, city, and parish officials to design and build a flood and storm damage reduction system that is better than before the storm; and these local officials will have a large part in the engineering decisions to come."

Woodley said the Corps has done a reconnaissance of the city to assess the general engineering feasibility, the economic justification, and the potential environmental implications of providing additional flood and storm protection to New Orleans and the surrounding area. More analysis is required to evaluate a range of options, he said.

"We are especially mindful," Woodley said, "that the coastal wetlands ecosystem can provide a buffer against the impacts of some storms and thus serves as the foundation upon which projects to reduce the risk of storm damage to the urban areas of the Louisiana coast are constructed."

Corps currently has nearly 2,900 employees deployed in the affected areas and estimates that meeting its assignments to date for Katrina from FEMA will cost about $3 billion.