I’ve spent the better part of the past three weeks devouring as much information as I can about the flood control system in New Orleans. I’ve read an encyclopedia’s worth of newspaper articles and government documents. I’ve spent enough time on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Web site to more than make up for completely neglecting it in my pre-Hurricane Katrina lifetime. And I’ve talked to anybody I can find that might have some valuable information to offer.

After taking time to digest this mass of material, I’ve come to this conclusion: The U.S. government ignored obvious signs that a disastrous flood would inevitably drown the city of New Orleans, putting in jeopardy key resources for American industry and, more sadly, a huge population of our nation’s poor and unfortunate.

Following the Mississippi River flood of 1927, much was done to protect U.S. cities from floodwaters. The Army Corps of Engineers built levees that met a high standard and were quite strong. However, in some areas of New Orleans, including around Lake Pontchartrain, levees were privately funded or built by local governments and did not receive the same degree of engineering.

Likewise, efforts to improve New Orleans’s pump stations have been suspect. According to The Wall Street Journal, designs for reinforcing the city’s pump stations have been complete for some time, yet, as of less than a year ago, just one of the city’s three major drainage canals had received such reinforcements, which would provide walls to prevent the backflow of water into New Orleans during heavy storms.

Despite these weaknesses, which were identified by the Corps of Engineers and brought to the attention of the federal government, the Bush administration’s budget request for the 2006 fiscal year for flood control projects in New Orleans was less than 30 percent ($41.5 million) of the Army Corps of Engineers’ capability figures ($142.7 million). In an official statement, the Army Corps of Engineers downplayed the shortfall, noting that capability figures are rarely funded in full because they assume unlimited resources.

This sounds logical to me … I mean there’s only so much money to go around. But what I cannot understand is why, given the knowledge that New Orleans’s flood control system was vulnerable to strong storms, the U.S. government did not have a plan in place to respond more swiftly when Hurricane Katrina hit.

As of now (Sept. 25), the Port of New Orleans, which is arguably the most important sea port in all of the United States, is operating far short of capacity. The port provides the main exit path for agricultural goods from the Midwest bound for buyer’s around the world, as well as the main entrance point for key industrial goods coming into the United States. Port CEO Gary LaGrange estimates it will cost $1.7
billion to rebuild the facility to support full capacity.

Regarding New Orleans’s population of poor, our government’s slow response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is nothing short of scandalous. Nearly one in three people in New Orleans live below the poverty level, twice the national average. For the most part, these people had no means of evacuating the city before the hurricane, and the U.S. government did little to help them.

Compound this reality with the fact that Michael Brown, who was appointed deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2001 and ascended to head the organization by 2003 before issuing his resignation after Hurricane Katrina, came to FEMA after a 10-year stint as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Horses … emergency preparedness … seems like a good fit.

During a recent conversation, a fellow with a company working to assist the unwatering of New Orleans commented to me: “I would expect that when we look at the rebuilding of New Orleans, a lot of lessons learned about infrastructure will be part of the solutions.” I replied: “I hope so … I certainly hope so.”

Matt Migliore, Editor