New Orleans suffers because of Iraq War

September 6, 2005

Congress established the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood (SELA) Control Project after six people were killed in massive rainstorms in May 1995.

Over 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

Starting 2003 as the Iraq War escalated, Bush and Congress began cutting back on SELA. Even when engineers began reporting the levees were sinking, funds were cut.

In the 2006 budget hearings, the House of Representatives wanted to cut the New Orleans district budget 21 percent to $272.4 million in 2006, down from $343.5 million in 2005. The House figure was about $20 million lower than the president’s suggested $290.7 million budget.

Meanwhile, Congress has allocated over $200 BILLION for the Iraq War since April, 2003. Another $19.9 billion was spent on Homeland Security through 2003.

Pres. Bush and Congress gambled that New Orleans would not need to have the levee system repaired. They lost the bet!


10 Responses to “New Orleans suffers because of Iraq War”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    The Bush administration is being widely criticized for the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina and the allegedly inadequate protection for “the big one” that residents had long feared would hit New Orleans. But research into more than ten years of reporting on hurricane and flood damage mitigation efforts in and around New Orleans indicates that local and state officials did not use federal money that was available for levee improvements or coastal reinforcement and often did not secure local matching funds that would have generated even more federal funding.

    In December of 1995, the Orleans Levee Board, the local government entity that oversees the levees and floodgates designed to protect New Orleans and the surrounding areas from rising waters, bragged in a supplement to the Times-Picayune newspaper about federal money received to protect the region from hurricanes.

    “In the past four years, the Orleans Levee Board has built up its arsenal. The additional defenses are so critical that Levee Commissioners marched into Congress and brought back almost $60 million to help pay for protection,” the pamphlet declared. “The most ambitious flood-fighting plan in generations was drafted. An unprecedented $140 million building campaign launched 41 projects.”

    The levee board promised Times-Picayune readers that the “few manageable gaps” in the walls protecting the city from Mother Nature’s waters “will be sealed within four years (1999) completing our circle of protection.”

    But less than a year later, that same levee board was denied the authority to refinance its debts. Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle “repeatedly faulted the Levee Board for the way it awards contracts, spends money and ignores public bid laws,” according to the Times-Picayune. The newspaper quoted Kyle as saying that the board was near bankruptcy and should not be allowed to refinance any bonds, or issue new ones, until it submitted an acceptable plan to achieve solvency.

    Blocked from financing the local portion of the flood fighting efforts, the levee board was unable to spend the federal matching funds that had been designated for the project.

    By 1998, Louisiana’s state government had a $2 billion construction budget, but less than one tenth of one percent of that — $1.98 million — was dedicated to levee improvements in the New Orleans area. State appropriators were able to find $22 million that year to renovate a new home for the Louisiana Supreme Court and $35 million for one phase of an expansion to the New Orleans convention center.

    The following year, the state legislature did appropriate $49.5 million for levee improvements, but the proposed spending had to be allocated by the State Bond Commission before the projects could receive financing. The commission placed the levee improvements in the “Priority 5” category, among the projects least likely to receive full or immediate funding.

    The Orleans Levee Board was also forced to defer $3.7 million in capital improvement projects in its 2001 budget after residents of the area rejected a proposed tax increase to fund its expanding operations. Long term deferments to nearly 60 projects, based on the revenue shortfall, totaled $47 million worth of work, including projects to shore up the floodwalls.

    No new state money had been allocated to the area’s hurricane protection projects as of October of 2002, leaving the available 65 percent federal matching funds for such construction untouched.

    “The problem is money is real tight in Baton Rouge right now,” state Sen. Francis Heitmeier (D-Algiers) told the Times-Picayune. “We have to do with what we can get.”

    Louisiana Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennen told local officials that, if they reduced their requests for state funding in other, less critical areas, they would have a better chance of getting the requested funds for levee improvements. The newspaper reported that in 2000 and 2001, “the Bond Commission has approved or pledged millions of dollars for projects in Jefferson Parish, including construction of the Tournament Players Club golf course near Westwego, the relocation of Hickory Avenue in Jefferson (Parish) and historic district development in Westwego.”

    There is no record of such discretionary funding requests being reduced or withdrawn, but in October of 2003, nearby St. Charles Parish did receive a federal grant for $475,000 to build bike paths on top of its levees.

    Earlier this year, the levee board did complete a $2.5 million restoration project. After months of delays, officials rolled away fencing to reveal the restored 1962 Mardi Gras fountain in a four-acre park featuring a new 600-foot plaza between famous Lakeshore Drive and the sea wall.

    Financing for the renovation came from a property tax passed by New Orleans voters in 1983. The tax, which generates more than $6 million each year for the levee board, is dedicated to capital projects. Levee board officials defended more than $600,000 in cost overruns for the Mardi Gras fountain project, according to the Times-Picayune, “citing their responsibility to maintain the vast green space they have jurisdiction over along the lakefront.”

    Democrats blame Bush administration

    Congressional Democrats have been quick to blame the White House for poor preparation and then a weak response related to Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, joined two of his colleagues from the Transportation and Infrastructure and Homeland Security committees Tuesday in a letter requesting hearings into what the trio called a “woefully inadequate” federal response.

    “Hurricane Katrina was an unstoppable force of nature,” Waxman wrote along with Reps. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). “But it is plain that the federal government could have done more, sooner, to respond to the immediate survival needs of the residents of Louisiana and Mississippi.

    “In fact, different choices for funding and planning to protect New Orleans may even have mitigated the flooding of the city,” the Democrats added.

    But Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) suggested that Waxman “overlooks many other questions that need to be asked, and prematurely faults the federal government for all governmental shortcomings; in fact, local and state government failures are not mentioned at all in [Waxman’s] letter.”

    Davis wrote that Waxman’s questions about issues such as the lack of federal plans for evacuating residents without access to vehicles and the alleged failure of the Department of Homeland Security to ensure basic communications capacity for first responders might “prematurely paint the picture that these are solely, or even primarily, federal government responsibilities.

    “This is not the time to attack or defend government entities for political purposes. Rather, this is a time to do the oversight we’re charged with doing,” Davis continued. “Our Committee will aggressively investigate what went wrong and what went right. We’ll do it by the book, and let the chips fall where they may.”

    The House Government Reform Committee will begin hearings on federal disaster preparations and the response to Hurricane Katrina the week of Sept. 12. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is schedule to hold hearings on the economic recovery from Katrina beginning Wednesday morning.

  2. Fact remains Bush & the Republican Congress cut the SELA budget from 2003 thru the upcoming 2006 budget. All your figures pre-date the federal cutbacks. The Times-Picayune repeatedly wrote stories about the federal cutbacks. Step out of the time capsule and quit picking & choosing your quotes to fit your pro-Bush agenda.

  3. I’m dissapointed to hear this from you Rick. The levee system was built to withstand a cat 3 storm (based on a cost/benefit analysis.) It almost made it through a cat 4. I’d say it did a pretty good job. The Army Corp was in the process of a levee upgrade feasibility study to protect the area from a cat 4/5. That upgrade would have taken as long as 20 years. No amount of funding two years ago would have made a difference.

  4. Having lived in New Orleans, I would not be surprised that the N.O. levee board and the State have not spent all their funds properly on the levees. LA is the state of Huey Long & Edwin Edwards after all.

    However, the federal gov’t did not complete the SELA program it had committed to in 1995. The 17th Ave. levee that failed was in bad shape. Federal funds to repair it had been cut and the levee board was having a hard time paying a contractor to complete the work.

    There is a Times-Picayune story about
    contractors rushing to complete repair work this spring before hurricane season. It’s obvious they didn’t complete the work.

    A $70-million cut in funding by the feds is significant.

  5. Melinda Says:

    It always amazes me how Bush supporters will attack anyone or anything that cast a bad light on this administration. We can argue numbers all day but at the end Bush failed as a leader. When leaders are wrong, they’re WRONG regardless whether they are democrats or republicans. Any president who would fly to San Diego and strum a guitar on stage last Tuesday while citizens of New Orleans were drowning does not deserve the support of anyone. The Bush administration has failed, failed the people of New Orleans, failed the people of Iraq, and failed all of us. There is a large sucking sound on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC right now….it’s the leadership vacuum that exists in the Oval office.

  6. We have been lulled into thinking there is no cost to the Iraq War. Instead of asking us to pay for homeland security and the war through higher taxes, we get tax cuts.

    The money had to come from somewhere. The Army Corp of Engineers, SELA and N.O. Levees are just some cuts made to finance the $200+ BILLION Iraq War.

    The person at the helm has to take responsibility – that’s our president.

  7. Straight from the horse’s mouth (pdf) regarding the 17th St levee that was in such bad shape.

  8. The “horse” doesn’t agree with his own project manager and appears to be re-writing history:

    From “Did New Orleans Catastrophe Have to Happen?”, published by Editor & Publisher magazine,

    At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

    In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to a Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness.

    On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.

    Also that June, with the 2004 hurricane season starting, the Corps’ project manager Al Naomi went before a local agency, the East Jefferson Levee Authority, and essentially begged for $2 million for urgent work that Washington was now unable to pay for.

    From the June 18, 2004 Times-Picayune: “The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don’t get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can’t stay ahead of the settlement,” he said. “The problem that we have isn’t that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we can’t raise them.”

    The panel authorized that money, and on July 1, 2004, it had to pony up another $250,000 when it learned that stretches of the levee in Metairie had sunk by four feet. The agency had to pay for the work with higher property taxes. The levee board noted in October 2004 that the feds were also now not paying for a hoped-for $15 million project to better shore up the banks of Lake Pontchartrain.

    The 2004 hurricane season was the worst in decades. In spite of that, the federal government came back this spring with the steepest reduction in hurricane and flood-control funding for New Orleans in history. Because of the proposed cuts, the Corps office there imposed a hiring freeze. Officials said that money targeted for the SELA project — $10.4 million, down from $36.5 million — was not enough to start any new jobs.

    There was, at the same time, a growing recognition that more research was needed to see what New Orleans must do to protect itself from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. But once again, the money was not there.

    As the Times-Picayune reported last Sept. 22:

    That second study would take about four years to complete and would cost about $4 million, said Army Corps of Engineers project manager Al Naomi. About $300,000 in federal money was proposed for the 2005 fiscal-year budget, and the state had agreed to match that amount.

    But the cost of the Iraq war forced the Bush administration to order the New Orleans district office not to begin any new studies, and the 2005 budget no longer includes the needed money, he said.

  9. If the requested funding had been approved, can you prove to us that the levee breeches would not have occurred?

  10. Scratch that. That question is too easy to answer, in the way it is phrased.

    If 2004 budget cuts you quoted had not occurred, can you prove to us that in under two years the levee system would have been improved enough to withstand a cat 4 storm?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s