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Bad Option

"Cheap" and "flood protection" do not belong in the same sentence. Has the Corps learned nothing since Katrina?

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is setting up New Orleans for failure. The Corps recently came out in favor of the cheapest possible option for building three new permanent pump stations at the lakefront. The Corps-backed "Option 1" is considerably cheaper than two other proposals for good reason: it provides less protection and leaves the city dependent on the same defective system that failed so utterly during Hurricane Katrina.

  Tom Jackson, a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (the consolidated East Bank levee board), says the Corps designed the 17th Street Canal floodwalls that failed during Katrina, and miles of those faulty floodwalls remain in use. By endorsing Option 1, the Corps is sticking with the old design despite its obvious defects. Jackson considers that decision "criminal."

  "I can't emphasize how wrong this is," Jackson says.

  After Katrina, Congress authorized construction of new lakefront pumping stations at the mouths of the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue and London Avenue canals. Numerous options were explored. Option 1 would replace the temporary pumping stations with permanent pumps that would be used only during a hurricane, when floodgates next to the pumps would be closed. The new pumps also would have to work in tandem with much older Sewerage and Water Board pumps on the other ends of the canals during a hurricane. During "normal" rain events, the new pumps would not be used; instead, the older pumps alone would drain the city, and the floodgates would remain open.

  Option 1 has many defects. First, there is no guarantee that the two sets of pumps would work in tandem during a hurricane. Second, the plan does not take into account the poorly designed and storm-weakened floodwalls on the outflow canals. The Corps-designed and Corps-built London Avenue and 17th Street canal floodwalls failed before and could fail again, yet the Corps' plan for sparing New Orleans during future storms includes relying on those same floodwalls.

  Local officials — including levee board members, the Jefferson Parish Council, the New Orleans City Council and the Regional Planning Commission — support "Option 2." This plan would provide permanent lakefront pump stations but also would deepen and pave the outflow canals so water would gravity-flow to the lakefront. Some of the older pump stations thus would no longer be needed — and the permanent lakefront pumps would become all-purpose, year-round pumping stations. Another option, described as "Option 2A," offers the same improvements as Option 2 but adds the "pump to the river" plan favored by many in Jefferson Parish.

  The Corps admits Option 2 is the better plan but claims that Option 1 adheres to a congressional mandate to provide the cheapest possible flood protection. The problem with that line of reasoning is that "cheap" and "flood protection" do not belong in the same sentence. Has the Corps learned nothing since Katrina?

  The Corps' position has prompted bipartisan opposition from Louisiana's congressional delegation. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, wrote a letter to the Corps expressing his support for Options 2 or 2A. Vitter correctly noted that because Option 1 carries a higher risk of flooding, the Corps should compare the costs of the costlier options with the projected cost of a flood event.

  Recently, the Corps told Rep. Steve Scalise that it wasn't authorized to build Option 2. Scalise, a Republican, disagreed with that legal interpretation and suggested the Corps ask Congress to clarify that Options 2 and 2A are in fact authorized. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who sits on the Appropriations Committee, has asked Janet Woodka, the new coordinator for Gulf Coast Recovery, to facilitate a meeting between locals, the Corps and members of the Obama Administration to resolve the issue.

  With the economy in crisis and every state looking for large construction projects, getting $2 billion more out of Washington won't be easy. This is, however, a fight our representatives must undertake with a united, bipartisan front. New Orleans has suffered enough from the Corps' myopic view of "flood protection." While the Corps says it is merely trying to follow the letter of the law, its interpretation of that law misses the big picture. As a direct consequence, New Orleans could remain vulnerable to future catastrophic flooding — and that truly is criminal.

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