Either we learn from our mistakes or we are bound to repeat them. Most of us acquire that wisdom as children. When we teach it to our own kids, we remind them that it's not about casting blame, but figuring out what went wrong so it won't happen again. So why hasn't Congress learned that lesson? When kids make mistakes, they usually get over them quickly. But when adults make them particularly adults in charge the consequence can be disastrous. The levee failures of Aug. 29, 2005, rank among the most glaring examples of disastrous adult mistakes, and it's critical that America examines in detail what went wrong. To that end, Congress should pass the 8/29 Investigation Act, which establishes a bipartisan commission to review why the levees failed and produce recommendations to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.
Sandy Rosenthal, founder and executive director of Levees.org, wants to make clear that the proposed act is not about blaming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Yes, Rosenthal says, the Corps bears partial responsibility, but the buck doesn't stop there. What about federal, state and local failures? By identifying all of the public organizations and how they contributed to the man-made disaster that accompanied Hurricane Katrina, Rosenthal says the commission can then identify possible solutions. "The two most important outcomes [for this investigation] are to make a set of recommendations about flood protection, including what went wrong and what should have happened from an unbiased set of eyes, and also make recommendations regarding the disappearing coastline," Rosenthal says.
Levees.org first proposed an investigation in November 2006. The group contacted U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to see if it was a viable idea. Rosenthal says Landrieu replied, "Yes. Now go out and get support for it." The group did just that, garnering favorable resolutions from governing councils in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard parishes. In fact, the Louisiana Legislature unanimously passed a resolution in June 2007 calling for an 8/29 investigation. In each of these legislative victories, the idea enjoyed bipartisan support.
That has not been the case in Congress.
Sen. Landrieu tried to introduce the bill twice last year as an amendment to the 2007 Water Resources Development Act. That made sense because the water bill, which became law, authorizes projects for the Corps. Unfortunately, Landrieu was stonewalled both times by partisan objections. "We have the general support of the Democratic leadership, but Republicans haven't been very welcoming of an investigation of a subject that may show significant failings on the part of the current administration," Landrieu says. "Otherwise, it would have just sailed through."
The most egregious lack of support comes from Louisiana's junior senator, David Vitter. Although Vitter offered lip service to Levees.org, saying he favors such an inquiry, he isn't even a co-sponsor of Landrieu's bill. Vitter also failed to respond to repeated requests by Gambit Weekly for an interview on the subject.
Looking ahead, Landrieu is exploring several options. One is attaching the bill as an amendment to compatible bills such as the annual energy and water development appropriations (the latter of which provides funding to the Corps) or as part of a supplemental appropriations bill for war funding and domestic programs. We would love to see a stand-alone bill with a full debate on the Senate floor. Opponents would then have to stand up and say what their objections to an investigation truly are. But that probably is the most difficult road to passage, as we've already seen.
Objections to the idea no doubt include the familiar refrains, "There's already been a governmental investigation," and "The Corps has admitted fault, so let's move on." Yes, there has been an "official" report, but it was hardly an objective investigation. The Corps, which designed and built the failed system, closely managed the government-sponsored study by the Interagency Performance Task Force (IPET). The IPET report has been roundly exposed and criticized as riddled with conflicts of interest. As for the Corps of Engineers admitting fault, so what? Sure, it felt good when the Corps offered a general mea culpa, but what has the nation gained from that?
We have said this before, but it bears repeating: New Orleans isn't the only major American city that depends on levees. This is a national issue. A recent report by the Corps of Engineers and FEMA showed that parts of Sacramento, California's levee system couldn't even withstand a 30-year storm. In 2007, another Corps report noted that 120 levees in 28 states were deemed unsafe.
For the sake of all American cities, Congress should pass the 8/29 Investigation Act. A good first step would be for both our senators to get on board. As almost any kid can tell you, everyone makes mistakes but smart people learn from them.