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September 2, 2005
Failed Levee Recently Upgraded

Several stories about supposed failures of the Bush administration to foresee the catastrophic failure of the New Orleans levee system have gotten published in the last two days, but one in the New York Times buries an uncomfortable fact midway through its report. Despite not getting the full federal budget money requested for levee engineering Louisiana requested, it turns out that the levees had indeed been improved and strengthened in targeted portions -- and that the main failure occurred in an upgraded section:

The 17th Street levee that gave way and led to the flooding of New Orleans was part of an intricate, aging system of barriers and pumps that was so chronically underfinanced that senior regional officials of the Army Corps of Engineers complained about it publicly for years.

Often leading the chorus was Alfred C. Naomi, a senior project manager for the corps and a 30-year veteran of efforts to waterproof a city built on slowly sinking mud, surrounded by water and periodically a target of great storms. ...

"A breach under these conditions was ultimately not surprising," he said last night. "I had hoped that we had overdesigned it to a point that it would not fail. But you can overdesign only so much, and then a failure has to come."

No one expected that weak spot to be on a canal that, if anything, had received more attention and shoring up than many other spots in the region. It did not have broad berms, but it did have strong concrete walls.

Shea Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans, said that was particularly surprising because the break was "along a section that was just upgraded."

"It did not have an earthen levee," Dr. Penland said. "It had a vertical concrete wall several feel thick."

One might ask about the effectiveness of the overall plan for upgrading the levees based on this performance, and whether that had anything to do with their failure to win as much federal money for the project. However, that question can wait until Lake Pontchartrain gets hemmed in behind its girdle once again and New Orleans gets back on its feet -- as could all the anklebiting about the budget process and responsibility for the levee system.

However, since that anklebiting appears to have so much attraction, allow me to point out a couple of facts. The power of Category 5 hurricanes have been known since Galveston in 1900, and certainly snce Hurricane Camille in 1969. Given New Orleans' fairly unique situation, the result of a direct Cat-4 or -5 hit has always been presumed to carry the inevitable result of levee failure. If we want to play the blame-Bush game, we can also play the blame-Nixon, blame-Ford, blame-Carter, blame-Reagan, blame-Bush 41, and blame-Clinton game, especially after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. However, since Congress allocates the money and the President has no line-item veto or modification power, the responsibility for funding these programs falls to our representatives.

But for what should they be blamed? After all, they have to weigh risks and benefits with each item in the budget, as well as whether a project has a responsible and practical value. We don't know what kind of project got proposed and whether the $71 million it lost funded any kind of practical effort. Given the new and improved levee that produced the failure, perhaps the decision made some sense at the time.

And let's not forget that the levee system protecting New Orleans belongs to the people of Louisiana, not the feds. It protects one city; it isn't an interstate system such as the ones built along the Mississippi. Why didn't Louisiana fund its own improvements? What have they done about the situation except wait for the rest of the country to fund them?

That's the problem with ankle-biting -- a plethora of ankles.

Now isn't the time for standing around and pointing fingers. We have much more important work to do in getting people to safety, getting them food, water, and shelter, and recovering what we can for New Orleans. Let's try reaching out instead of making this yet another point of polarization for the uberpartisans to stall with their venomous rhetoric. See John Cole and Ezra Klein for more thoughts.

UPDATE: Michelle Malkin has much, much more on this topic, including links to articles in the 1990s complaining of a lack of federal interest in maintaining and upgrading the levee system. In fact, Michelle has been a dervish on all things Katrina -- be sure to check on her site for updates throughout the day.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 2, 2005 5:31 AM

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