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Editorial: Criticism of Army Corps of Engineers warranted

Last Modified: Friday, October 05, 2012 7:20 PM

The upgraded levee system that protects the City of New Orleans passed the test provided by Hurricane Isaac.

That’s the good news. However, the Category 1 hurricane revealed other problem areas outside the major levee system with catastrophic flooding in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes and along the southwestern and northern rim of Lake Pontchartrain.

Garret Graves, chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, called the storm’s impact a ‘‘tale of two cities’’ for those residents and businesses inside the federal levee system and their neighbors on the outside.

While New Orleans proper remained relatively high and dry because, unlike Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the levees held and did exactly what they were intended to do, communities like Braithwaite, LaPlace and Slidell endured major flooding with some subdivisions suffering damage caused by 10- to 12-feet-high surges.

During a recent Senate hearing in Gretna to review the storm’s impact on the area, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came under heavy criticism.

U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., and Congressman Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, asked the corps to review the improvements made to the federal levee system that protects New Orleans to ensure that those changes did not cause the flooding in other areas.

Corps Major Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Mississippi Valley, said he did not believe a review will show that the alterations caused flooding elsewhere, but said the possibility could not be ruled out.

Landrieu and Vitter hammered Peabody about levee protection projections that have been in the planning and review stages for years, but have never constructed.

Landrieu pointed to a West Shore Levee project that was authorized in 1971, but never built. She said had it been constructed, it would have prevented some of the flooding downriver from New Orleans.

‘‘The study has been in the budget 40 years and has not progressed one iota,’’ she said.

Peabody didn’t garner any sympathy when he pointed out that the corps has a $60 billion backlong in construction projects.

Vitter said a levee project that would have protected communities in lower Jefferson Parish from the Isaac-induced flooding had been canceled after $10 million was spent studying it. The reason? Peabody said the cost-to-benefit ration could not be justified.

That’s no consolation for those residents of Lafitte, Barataria and Crown Point that saw their homes and businesses inundated by Isaac’s rains and storm surge.

“I’m afraid the corps is back to their old norm — a vicious cycle of bureaucracy, delay and cost overruns — and it seems to be returning with a vengeance,” Vitter said Thursday. “First we need to find out exactly where their funding and contracting miscues are coming from; then we need to make necessary reforms to cut through red tape and make their handling of flood control projects much more efficient. There are clear safety risks for backlogged and over budget flood control projects, but they could also be putting our economic recovery at risk if they are unable to sustain our country’s water infrastructure.”

If true, that borders on dereliction of duty by the corps.

•••

This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Ken Stickney, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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