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, thereÃ¢€™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 Ã¢€¦ a disaster decades in the making, Herb. And thatÃ¢€™s just the White House. LouisianaÃ¢€™s elected officials werenÃ¢€™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.