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New Orleans begged for help to prevent levee break

New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.

Over the next 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.

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq , as well as homeland security—coming at the same time as federal tax cuts—was the reason for the strain. 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.

Articles published in local New Orleans newspapers:

Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness:
The $750 million Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection project is another major Corps project, which remains about 20% incomplete due to lack of funds, said Al Naomi, Army Corps of Engineers, project manager. That project consists of building up levees and protection for pumping stations on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Orleans , St. Bernard, St. Charles and Jefferson parishes.

The Lake Pontchartrain project is slated to receive $3.9 million in the president’s 2005 budget. Naomi said about $20 million is needed.

“The longer we wait without funding, the more we sink,” he said. “I’ve got at least six levee construction contracts that need to be done to raise the levee protection back to where it should be (because of settling). Right now I owe my contractors about $5 million. And we’re going to have to pay them interest.”

June 8, 2004 , Times-Picayune:
Walter Maestri, Emergency Management Chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana :
 
“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.”

June 18, 2004 Times-Picayune:
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.

“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 .

June 5, 2005, New Orleans CityBusiness:
The district has identified $35 million in projects to build and improve levees, floodwalls and pumping stations in St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes. Those projects are included in a Corps line item called Lake Pontchartrain , where funding is scheduled to be cut from $5.7 million this year to $2.9 million in 2006.

Naomi said it’s enough to pay salaries but little else.
“We’ll do some design work. We’ll design the contracts and get them ready to go if we get the money. But we don’t have the money to put the work in the field, and that’s the problem,” Al Naomi , Army Corps of Engineers, project manager, said.

Sept. 22, 2004 Times-Picayune:
[A newly proposed] 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.


Contractor tried to finish work on levee that failed
One project that a contractor had been racing to finish this summer was a bridge and levee job right at the 17th Street Canal, site of the main breach.

The Newhouse News Service article published Tuesday night observed, “The Louisiana congressional delegation urged Congress earlier this year to dedicate a stream of federal money to Louisiana ’s coast, only to be opposed by the White House. ... In its budget, the Bush administration proposed a significant reduction in funding for southeast Louisiana ’s chief hurricane protection project. Bush proposed $10.4 million, a sixth of what local officials say they need.”

Excerpted from blog submitted by Will Bunch, senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News.