Katrina: Louisiana Levees and Federal Funds

There’s an interesting side discussion going on in the comments of my post from this afternoon on whether the flooding from Hurricane Katrina constitutes a “man-made disaster.”

Anderson starts the ball rolling with the remark, “As I think was discussed ad nauseam at OTB and elsewhere, there’s absolutely no player in the Katrina disaster who comes off well. The politicians at all levels preferred voter-friendly short-term spending to less glamorous long-term spending.”

Herb responds that it’s all Clinton’s fault, to which Anderson retorts, “Clinton, both Bushes, Reagan, Carter … a disaster decades in the making, Herb. And that’s just the White House. Louisiana’s elected officials weren’t exactly banging down the door to get the levees perfected.”

New Orleans resident Paul responds, “You have disqualified yourself from speaking credibly on this topic. Our delegation has been trying to do this for years and requests have fallen on deaf ears.”

So, did Louisana get their money? Was it Clinton’s fault? Was it Colonel Mustard, in the kitchen, with a knife?

To answer this I take you via the Wayback Machine to the OTB Archives from September 8: Katrina: Louisiana Federal Money Not Spent on Levees.

It references a front page WaPo story that begins,

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 story is damning but not surprising. As I noted in that post,

Louisiana’s politicians are no different from those of other states: they want to get as many federal dollars as they can and spend them on projects that will have the biggest economic impact. They judged the risk of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane taking a direct path over New Orleans sufficiently low as to permit the money to go to projects that were seemingly more urgent. Obviously, they guessed wrong–with tragic consequences.

Louisiana got tons of federal money that could have easily been earmarked for flood control and chose, reasonably enough, to generate jobs to boost its poor economy. I don’t blame Mary Landrieu for that. It would be nice, though, if she would refrain from going on television with tears in her eyes and threatening to punch the president.

Nothing I’ve learned since then has changed my view.

From the various Times-Picayune stories that Paul and others have linked, it’s clear there is plenty of blame to go around covering state and local politicians of both parties for several decades. Too, for reasons that are as yet unexplained, the Army Corps of Engineers–one of the few government institutions that are generally considered incredibly competent and above moral reproach–seems to have made numerous reinforcing blunders that worsened the situation.

But there’s little doubt that Louisiana’s politicians–and, thus, indirectly, its electorate–bear more blame than most. They got more money than any other state and used it for job creation rather than public safety time and again. The governor and the mayor failed to get the city evacuated in time and actually encouraged people who had evacuated to come back just in time to be trapped by the surging floodwaters.

Ultimately, it is those decisions that are most blameworthy because we can only speculate as to whether better-built levees would have saved those lives but we know that people who evacuated the city for higher ground escaped the disaster.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anononon says:

    The FEMA official that I know took his full vacation to delay going to the coast as long as possible. He stated that many in FEMA used their vacation time to “buffer” going to crisis sites.

  2. Paul says:

    Nice James…

    You ignore the fact you were on the wrong levees and switch the topic to the fact the Corps also does projects that do not DIRECTLY go to flood control…

    Even so- History has told us this story is meaningless. Even if every penny cited in this story went DIRECTLY to flood control the outcome of Katrina would have been the same. Every home would have been flooded.

    Louisiana has been lobbying for years to get “Cat 5” levees. The requests have been ignored. Pointing out that some Corps funding did not go DIRECTLY to flood control does not change that.

    The military spends million (billions?) on morale. BILLIONS on humanitarian aid. This money does not go DIRECTLY to defense. Does that mean that all military money is wasted?

    Just because the Corps does other things that are not DIRECTLY related to flood control does not mean Congress approved Cat 5 levees. Good God man you are a freaking political scientist, I don’t have to tell you this.

    You can dance on the head of a pin but you can not ignore the fact the Corps flooded New Orleans thru negligence.

    We were told these were “state of the art” floodwalls and they crumbled like fortune cookies. Guess that’s all the damn Louisiana politicians fault huh?


  3. Paul says:

    >The governor and the mayor failed to get the city evacuated in time and actually encouraged people who had evacuated to come back just in time to be trapped by the surging floodwaters.

    James, WTF are you talking about? Can you give me a link? When did people come back to be “trapped by the surging floodwaters.”

  4. Jeff says:

    I’m not a big fan of FEMA but having just left the Gulf coast, I can tell you, you can’t shake a stick without hitting someone working for FEMA, employee or contractor. They are putting in valiant efforts to get the assistance to those who need it while living in makeshift camps right along those still displaced.

    Anononon’s friend’s reasoning not withstanding, there are legitimate reasons for FEMA employees taking vacation right now. First, it’s use or lose season for annual leave and it was a busy hurricane season. So all those deferred vacations start to pile up this time of year. Secondly, the Gulf coast is a longterm effort. It is good planning to husband your employees so that they aren’t all burned out immediately.

    I remember watching the news coverage of the hospitals in New York on 9/11. It was reported that doctors and nurses were showing up wanting to work when they were off duty. Admirable but shortsighted. Had there have been a flood of trauma patients, who would have been rested to take over from the immediate providers the next day or week. It’s a bitter pill but in a disaster, those not immediately needed must stay away and try to rest even though every fiber in their bodies wants to be on-site. They must prepare themselves to man the second wave of response. Big catastrophes such as 9/11 and Katrina require a long term effort that requires discipline to manage the resources (responders) without exhausting them.

    Perhaps some took vacations to delay going to the coast but just maybe FEMA is scheduling leave so that there are fresh resources ready to relieve those in the area in order to continue the sustained effort.

  5. Herb says:


    To put the record straight, My comment to Andersons comment referes to a statement made by Anderson where he said

    “politicians at all levels prefered voter friendly short term spending to less glamorous long term spending”

    I have always associated the term “short term spending to a period of time around 5 years or less. And by long term to a period of time of 5 years or more.

    In that Clinton was in office during that period of time between 5 and 10 years prior to Katrina, I considered the period of time between 5 and 10 years to be on Clintons watch.

    We are now heavly engaged in rehtoric about the failings of politicians during their period of time when they are on watch. Now Bush is on watch and getting heat and blame for everything happening on his watch, so, I feel that is only fair to place responsibility for the failure to watch over the federal spending on the levies on the person whose watch the spending occured. In this case, it was on Clintons watch.

    I must admit though, that while not blaming Clinton directly, I did put the inference there.

    While I am at it, I can also state that Louisiana politicians have to take a little more than their share of the blame for their failure to also insure that the levies were built to a safety level that would have prevented the disaster.

  6. Anderson says:

    Herb, what I meant was that politicians for generations had been preferring short-term results. Sorry if I was unclear.

    Paul, I’m sure LA’s legislators were asking for more hurricane protection, like I ask for world peace every year at Xmas. I’m just not aware that anyone, with the honorable exception of the Times-Pic, was really being urgent about it. When was Hurricane Betsy, 1965? 40 years later and there’s what? OBVIOUSLY the LA delegations were not raising Cain over this.

    (I’m confused about the “floodwaters” comment too, though. The more I think about it, the mayor actually gets the best grade of anyone. He wasn’t especially prepared, but he did get the city evacuated and he did get the stay-behinds to safe ground. Hence the remarkably low death toll.)

  7. Paul says:

    >OBVIOUSLY the LA delegations were not raising Cain over this.

    Why is it obvious?

    If it is so obvious, can you cite just 3 thigns that indicate it?

    Are you a member of congress?

    Have you ever lived in New Orleans and listened to the various Sens and Congs speak?

    Please… If it so obivous to the world, can you tell how you know?

    Bottom line you have no clue what you are talking about. — I don’t blame you for not knowing — I don’t know what it is important to the congressional delegations in Utah. — But I do blame you for being a jackass and claiming it is so obvious when you have clue what you are talking about.

  8. Anderson says:

    Sigh. I have to prove a negative? “There was no serious effort by LA’s delegation to fight for hurricane protection”? I guess I could sit down with the Congressional Record and cite page after page that don’t record any such.

    Whereas JJ has presented examples of deflected spending.

    If, year after year, Louisiana fought desperately to defend N.O. from The Big One, there ought to be some stuff you can link to.