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Reform the Corps Now

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In late 2005, Congress gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers $20 million and ordered it to complete within two years a plan for Category 5 storm protection, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration (LACPR) report. Three years later, the report is still not finished and the Corps says it won't be finished until at least June of next year. Worse yet, the report can't really be called a plan, because — as Gambit Weekly's Jeremy Alford pointed out earlier this year ("Not Again ..." Jan. 8) — it will be "a simple 'template for decision-making' and void of any real recommendations."

Tom Jackson, civil engineer and a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (the consolidated East Bank levee board), isn't surprised. He says the report has been repeatedly delayed and cloaked in secrecy. "When you have something you're hearing little or nothing about, it's usually not a good sign," Jackson says. We're not surprised, either.

As numerous political, business and community leaders have noted, until we get Category 5 protection, New Orleans will not fully recover. How heartbreakingly ironic: The same federal agency that failed us before and during Hurricane Katrina continues to let us down in our quest for what was promised us all along — real hurricane protection.

Blame for the delays and failures falls squarely on the Corps. In fact, around the same time Congress authorized LACPR, the Louisiana Legislature established the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and called for a corresponding state plan, the Comprehensive Master Plan for Coastal Restoration and Hurricane Protection. In just 14 months — and at a cost of only $3 million — Louisiana produced a peer-reviewed plan, which, unlike LACPR, has specific project recommendations. State lawmakers approved CPRA's plan in May 2007, six months before the Corps' original deadline.

Although the state already has a plan, the Corps hasn't even requested input from state officials, nor has it provided drafts of its plan. This kind of bumbling arrogance and indifference appears to be standard Corps procedure. Just last month the Corps, as a member of the Breaux Act Task Force, spearheaded a vote to halt a coastal restoration project unless the state paid for navigational dredging ("Don't Halt Diversions," Gambit Weekly, Nov. 18). Yet, part of the central mission of the Corps is navigational dredging, and in the Breaux Act, Congress ordered the Corps to restore coastal wetlands.

By offering only a decision-making template rather than specific projects, the Corps is ignoring a direct congressional mandate. CPRA Chair Garret Graves worked for the U.S. Senate in 2005 and helped draft the original legislation authorizing the Corps to create the coastal protection and restoration report. Graves says the intent was never a design matrix, but a concrete plan. "Not just recommendations, but in the 2005 legislation, we actually directed they provide specific designs," Graves says.

Later, when it became apparent the Corps wasn't following the directive, Graves, with bipartisan support from Louisiana Sens. David Vitter and Mary Landrieu, wrote a provision into the 2007 Water Resources Development Act instructing the Corps to include specific recommendations. The Louisiana delegation even managed to insert language into the act that the recommendations would fall, as Graves wrote it, "outside of normal policy considerations" and become fast-tracked without any of the normal funding delays. Graves says Congress allowed this because it recognized the importance of such a plan for south Louisiana.

"This is life and these are real priorities," Graves says.

Not according to the Corps, which continues to say the plan will not contain recommendations, but a decision-making template. This coming from an organization that has unprecedented engineering, scientific and computer capacity, but still can't seem to make a decision.

What part of its official mandate does the Corps not understand?

We don't have to look too far back to see that presenting a menu of options to Congress is a terrible strategy. Congress discussed and debated the Morganza-to-the-Gulf Hurricane Protection Project for more than two decades before appropriating $882 million for the project in 2007. That appropriation was based on a cost estimate that was more than 15 years old, and the project has stalled. As Congress continued to debate, Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes were left unprotected against storm surges from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

South Louisiana needs an actionable plan for Category 5 protection, and if the Corps can't deliver such a plan, then the Corps needs to change. Landrieu spokesperson Stephanie Allen says reforming the Corps "is absolutely one of Sen. Landrieu's top agenda items for this term."

We'd like reforming the Corps to be the top agenda item for the entire Louisiana delegation. As long as the Corps thinks it can do what it wants when it wants and ignore congressional mandates, south Louisiana and metro New Orleans have little hope of getting real hurricane protection.


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