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Institutional Inertia: the Corps of Engineers

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed us again. This month the agency released a draft of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Study, but the $23 million document — a year and a half overdue — failed to provide a plan for Category 5 hurricane protection. Instead, it contains only a list of possible options. This failure occurred despite two directives from Congress — first in late 2005 and again in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) — to devise specific designs and recommendations to save Louisiana's coast. The cruelest twist of all in this failure is the study's one concrete recommendation: the need for more studies.

  Could there possibly be a more glaring example of institutionalized inertia than the Corps' intractable determination not to protect our coast? Some have criticized the Obama Administration for taking on too many issues. The president answers that America doesn't have the luxury of delaying on any of those fronts. We agree. There is no time to waste when it comes to restoring Louisiana's disappearing coast, either. Besides saving lives and billions of dollars, a healthy Louisiana coastline will provide employment and protect energy-sector infrastructure. If the Corps refuses to listen to Congress, the president must step in and demand that the agency do its job. If it means cleaning house at the Corps, so much the better.

  Unfortunately, there are signs that the new administration is unaware of, or ignoring, Louisiana's plight. "We're sort of at our wits' end as to what to do to convince any administration or any level of national government of the urgency of this," says Chris Macaluso, spokesman for Louisiana's Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration. His frustration is understandable. The state coastal office submitted $6.2 billion worth of "shovel-ready" projects to be funded by the $787 billion federal stimulus package. Despite many of the projects having previous authorization from WRDA and the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act, none of them made the cut.

  Fortunately, the state isn't waiting on the feds. In May 2007, the Louisiana Legislature approved its own peer-reviewed master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection. According to Macaluso, the coastal office is presenting $1.2 billion in state projects to lawmakers for the 2010 fiscal year. That money is already available and can be spent over the next three fiscal years on coastal restoration and protection.

  On the local level, Plaquemines Parish also is getting busy. Rather than relying on federal experts and engineers to devise a plan for restoring the parish's fragile coastline, Plaquemines wrote its own plan and paid the Corps to run computer models on it. Parish President Billy Nungesser says the tests prove Plaquemines can protect itself from storm surge by pumping river sediment and reforesting the reclaimed land. "We felt we had to update the parish, the businesses and residents and give them something they could put their arms around, so they could say, 'I can live the rest of my life here, and my kids could grow up here,'" Nungesser says.

  That's the kind of assurance all of southeast Louisiana needs and deserves — but isn't getting from the Corps' pseudo-plan. How did this happen? According to Garret Graves, the state's coastal czar, the reason the Corps did not produce an action plan is because a Bush administration appointee, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) George Dunlop, ordered the Corps not to make specific recommendations. That order likely came sometime in late 2006, which means the Corps wasted at least two years "studying" when it could have been designing Category 5 protection.

  Unlike Congress, the Corps answers to the president. The assistant secretary of the Army, a presidential appointee, is in charge of the Corps, and that gives Graves cause for optimism. "We have a great opportunity right now to have strong leadership put in that assistant secretary position," Graves says, adding that the person currently under consideration (rumored to be Gerald Galloway) would "fit the bill."

  We hope Graves is right. A dynamic new leader could break through the Corps' entrenched, institutionalized inertia and transform an agency that sorely needs change. Without that kind of wholesale change, Louisiana cannot be assured the president is truly committed to coastal restoration and hurricane protection.

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