Not a Case of If, But When

Former officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got a sick feeling last week as two levees collapsed and floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina surged across New Orleans.

Corps engineers had known for years that the mostly earthen levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain were designed to protect the city from a weak Category 3 hurricane _ not a Category 4 with Katrina’s punch.

The port city’s defenses had been further weakened because federal funding shortfalls had delayed for 30 years completion of a project to raise the levees’ height.

The result: the two breaches caused the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Its mounting toll set off a storm of criticism and political finger-pointing, and left former officials of the nation’s premier public works agency wrestling with self doubt. Mike Parker, who was forced to end his brief reign as head of the Corps in 2002 after publicly criticizing the Bush White House for cutting his budget requests, said additional funding in recent years might have reduced the flooding.

Parker blamed bureaucrats in the Office of Management and Budget in both Democratic and Republican administration for cutting the Corps’ budget requests. The Bush White House has cut $400 million from Corps requests for southeast Louisiana flood control money, according to the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

Parker said he wonders whether he could have made a difference “if I had been more forceful, if I were smarter (or) more politically astute. I’m as much at fault as anybody else.

“I wish I had understood a little bit better and could communicate to people what needed to happen. Unfortunately, they’re learning now. But it’s too late.”

As the casualty count and property losses rose, congressional Democrats and other critics assailed Bush for slashing by tens of millions of dollars the Corps’ requests for funding to upgrade the New Orleans levees while spending billions of dollars in Iraq. The president fueled the criticism when he told ABC: “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.”

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, now the Army Corps’ chief of engineers, later acknowledged to reporters that his agency has long “understood the potential impact of a category 4 or 5 hurricane” on New Orleans. Strock defended its decision not to shift funding from other Corps projects to shield the key shipping hub at the mouth of the Mississippi River, calling a hurricane of that magnitude a low-probability, “200- to 300-year event.”

“How can you agree with that? How does that make any sense?” asked Joseph Suhayda, a Louisiana State University engineering professor who worked part time in the Corps’ New Orleans district office from 1996-2000.

After Hurricane George sent a scare through the city in 1998, Suhayda said, he proposed a plan to create a “community haven” by installing 12 miles of flood barriers shielding the city’s business district and providing emergency shelter to residents. He said the Corps put up a few hundred thousand dollars for a study into his idea, but he could never get funding for the project.

“You could have done it in one year,” Suhayda said. “The breach that occurred in one corner of the city basically spread throughout the whole city. Why? Why allow the water to move through the whole thing, including the French Quarter that was miles and miles away.”

He said his proposal would have cost tens of millions of dollars to perhaps a few hundred million dollars. Now, Suhayda said, “we’re going to spend … a hundred times the amount of money, and with all this human suffering.”

New Orleans’ vulnerability may have been pre-ordained by decisions made generations ago, after massive flooding inundated the city and the Southeast in 1927. It led to the creation of the Corps, which soon began to build levees to protect the city, but also built channels that led to coastal erosion.

After Hurricane Betsy flooded New Orleans in 1965, Congress authorized a 10-year project to raise the height of levees along the southern border of huge Lake Pontchartrain, which abuts the city.

Fred Caver, who retired in June as the Corps’ deputy director of civil works, said he and a number of other engineers concluded in the late 1980s or early 1990s that the levee system “was not the best engineering choice.” It would have been better, he said, to build a towering, gated barrier that would block a storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico into the lake.

Instead, he said, the Corps stuck with the system of levees. Coupled with levees on the city’s southern edge and along the Mississippi River, he said, the city lay prone as “a large bathtub.”

A second project to install systems able to pump feet-deep floodwaters from the city “has been moving very quickly,” Caver said, “but not as fast as it could.”

Both Parker and Caver said decision to defer spending on the levees must be placed in the context of the huge demands on the Corps for navigation improvements, many affecting the nation’s ability to ship products overseas and compete on world markets.

Caver said he wouldn’t be human if he weren’t now feeling “self doubt.”

“In this particular instance, we took a risk as a nation and we lost,” he said.