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    Shifting federal budget erodes protection from levees; Because of cuts, hurricane risk grows The Times-Picayune Publishing Company Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2005
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      Shifting federal budget erodes protection from levees;
      Because of cuts, hurricane risk grows

      The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
      Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

      June 8, 2004 Tuesday

      SECTION: NATIONAL; Pg. 1

      LENGTH: 1073 words

      HEADLINE: Shifting federal budget erodes protection from levees;
      Because of cuts, hurricane risk grows

      BYLINE: By Sheila Grissett, East Jefferson bureau

      BODY:

      For the first time in 37 years, federal budget cuts have all but
      stopped major work on the New Orleans area's east bank hurricane
      levees, a complex network of concrete walls, metal gates and giant
      earthen berms that won't be finished for at least another decade.

      "I guess people look around and think there's a complete system in
      place, that we're just out here trying to put icing on the cake,"
      said Mervin Morehiser, who manages the "Lake Pontchartrain and
      vicinity" levee project for the Army Corps of Engineers. "And we
      aren't saying that the sky is falling, but people should know that
      this is a work in progress, and there's more important work yet to
      do before there is a complete system in place."

      In reality, levee building is a long-term undertaking. Section by
      section, earth is piled into walls as high as 20 feet to protect
      land on the east bank of the Mississippi River from water that a
      slow-moving Category 3 hurricane could shove out of Lake
      Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne. But the levees gradually settle into
      southeast Louisiana's mucky subsoil, and every few years, the corps
      comes back, section by section, to pile on more dirt in what
      insiders call a "lift."

      "It has always been part of our long-range plan to raise each
      section of the levee four or even five times," said Al Naomi, the
      corps' senior project manager. "After that, we think the levee might
      have stabilized and not need further raisings."

      Time for next lift

      It's time now for the next lifts in a number of places that have
      sunk 2 to 4 feet from their design elevations. These include in
      Kenner west of the Pontchartrain Center, Metairie between Causeway
      Boulevard and Clearview Parkway, Norco and St. Rose in St. Charles
      Parish, the Bayou Sauvage area of eastern New Orleans, and remote
      marshland areas of eastern St. Bernard Parish.

      The subsidence is expected.

      What's new, said Morehiser and Naomi, is that the agency has run out
      of money for the next round of lifts. Naomi said this is the first
      time a lack of money has stopped major corps work on the levees
      since the project began in 1967.

      "I can't tell you exactly what that could mean this hurricane season
      if we get a major storm," Naomi said. "It would depend on the path
      and speed of the storm, the angle that it hits us.

      "But I can tell you that we would be better off if the levees were
      raised, . . . and I think it's important and only fair that those
      people who live behind the levee know the status of these projects."

      Levees on the east bank of New Orleans, as well as some in eastern
      St. Bernard Parish, are among the area's oldest and have had several
      lifts. Corps engineers said the next lift might be the last they
      need.

      But the levees on the east bank of St. Charles and Jefferson
      parishes are much younger, and most stretches have had only one or
      two lifts.

      "This project isn't expected to end for another 13 to 15 years,"
      Morehiser said. "They aren't really finished levees at this point.
      We don't even turn them over to their local sponsors until we
      consider them stable, which is years from now."

      The levees are designed to handle a storm surge of 11 feet, and
      every additional foot of levee above that is intended to contain
      waves that otherwise would top the levee. The height of individual
      levee segments vary.

      "When levees are below grade, as ours are in many spots right now,
      they're more vulnerable to waves pouring over them and degrading
      them," Naomi said. "We're not below storm-surge elevation yet, but
      we will be if we stop raising our levees as they subside."

      Bush budget falls short

      The Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2005 budget includes only
      $3.9 million for the east bank hurricane project. Congress likely
      will increase that amount, although last year it bumped up the
      administration's $3 million proposal only to $5.5 million.

      "I needed $11 million this year, and I got $5.5 million," Naomi
      said. "I need $22.5 million next year to do everything that needs
      doing, and the first $4.5 million of that will go to pay four
      contractors who couldn't get paid this year."

      Naomi said the corps already owes four contractors more than $2
      million for hurricane protection work they've done this year without
      pay, and he expects the figure to climb to about $4.5 million by
      Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.

      The challenge now, said emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri
      in Jefferson Parish and Terry Tullier in New Orleans, is for
      southeast Louisiana somehow to persuade those who control federal
      spending that protection from major storms and flooding are matters
      of homeland security.

      "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," Maestri said. "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."

      Tullier said, "There is no magic bullet or single key for us. It
      takes all the keys that we have, and our system of protection is
      only as strong as its weakest link.

      "For us, this levee is part and parcel of homeland security because
      it helps protect us 365 days a year."

      Weak links elsewhere

      Levee-raising is only part of the flood-related work that has
      stopped since the federal government began reducing Corps of
      Engineers appropriations in 2001, as more money was diverted to
      homeland security, the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq.

      Naomi said the local corps district has no money to close gaps in
      the hurricane levee on St. Charles Parish's east bank. That levee is
      designed to protect St. Rose, Destrehan, New Sarpy and Norco, as
      well as keep floodwater from closing Airline Drive, a major
      evacuation route.

      Nor does the corps have money to floodproof the Robert E. Lee Bridge
      over the London Canal in New Orleans, nor to build the concrete
      walls and gates to protect pump stations Nos. 3 and 7 from storm
      surges on the New Orleans lakefront.

      All of these projects, along with periodic levee lifts, are part of
      the corps' long-term $745 million hurricane protection project.

      "The big danger here is that if we don't get the money to award
      these contracts that are ready to go, the backlog will only increase
      as the levees continue to settle," Naomi said. "We'll end up so far
      behind that we can't catch up. And the further behind we get, the
      more critical the safety of the city becomes."

      -----------

      Our nation will never be the same after the images being shot across
      the country today. Let's channel the outrage where it belongs..
      (Please forward widely.) [Fw is from Luke at dc indymedia]

      "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,"

      - Emergency Management Chief Walter Maestri, Jefferson Parish, LA,
      June 8, 2004.

      Copyright 2004

      --

      Pat N
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