Hurricane season officially lasts six months, from June 1 through Nov. 30, but the time to be vigilant about flood protection is all year long. Members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East are well aware of that notion, and they have been working diligently to keep flood protection atop everyone's list of priorities. In recent weeks, Authority members have sounded an alarm in regards to the huge $1.76 billion tab that Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers want to send southeast Louisiana for our "share" of the cost of the 100-year flood protection system promised by 2011. There are many important aspects to area flood protection, but the simple truth is that southeast Louisiana cannot and should not have to pay such a bill. The reasons are many.
First, the citizens of southeast Louisiana have already paid millions for Category 3 hurricane protection but Congress and the Corps did not keep up their end of the bargain. Hurricane Katrina brought a storm surge that overtopped some levees in eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, but most of Katrina's damage occurred because federally designed and federally built floodwalls that were supposed to protect New Orleans failed. In some cases, the sheet pilings inside those floodwalls were less than 25 feet long when they should have been more than 50 feet long. That engineering debacle was not Louisiana's fault; it was the federal government's. Residents of southeast Louisiana should not have to pay again to fix a federal failure.
Despite overwhelming arguments in favor of complete federal cost assumption, Congress wants southeast Louisiana to pay 35 percent of the more than $5 billion price tag for 100-year flood protection. That cost comes to at least $1.76 billion, an amount so wildly beyond the reach of southeast Louisiana taxpayers that it's not even worth discussing seriously. Worse yet, Congress expects us to pony up that amount all at once.
We have a better idea.
In light of the absolutely indisputable fact that Congress has continuously failed through Democratic as well as Republican administrations to adequately fund long-promised flood protection for south Louisiana, which heats and fuels up to 30 percent of the country and moves substantial amounts of its cargo, we submit that Congress has a moral obligation to "get it right this time" by paying the entire cost of 100-year flood protection. If that is not politically feasible, we suggest that no more than 10 percent be apportioned to local taxpayers, who should be given up to 30 years to pay. Furthermore, Congress and the Corps should give local levee districts credit for past contributions that were destroyed by Katrina as a result of federal incompetence and indifference, and credit (at fair market value) for "borrow materials" to be provided to the Corps in the near future. Congress and the Corps also should let the Orleans Levee District put up the Lake Pontchartrain Seawall and the green space between the seawall and the lakefront levee as part of the local match, because both play integral roles in flood protection and both were paid for entirely by state and local funds.
There is ample federal precedent for these suggestions.
First, the Secretary of the Army has the discretion to allow the local cost share to be paid over a 30-year period. This discretion has been applied in situations not as exigent as southeast Louisiana's present circumstances. Second, Federal Highway Administration funds cover up to 90 percent of approved projects. Given the important role that south Louisiana plays in interstate commerce and national security, a 90/10 split seems more than appropriate. Moreover, in the wake of Katrina, the Submerged Road Program awards 100 percent federal funding to fix area roads. Finally, FEMA repairs in the wake of Katrina are at the 90/10 level and in many cases the 10 percent local share is forgiven.
John Barry, author of Rising Tide and a New Orleans representative on the regional flood authority, summed up southeast Louisiana's dilemma for Gambit Weekly: "If we don't get significantly more help in paying for 100-year flood protection, we will not get 100-year protection by 2011 as promised and it may even take us "til 2020 or longer."
We agree. Time is of the essence, and Barry adds that this is truly a regional problem that requires a regional response. We therefore urge citizens, public officials, business and civic groups, neighborhood associations and all others with a stake in southeast Louisiana to make noise lots of noise on this issue. Do it now. Demand that Congress pay 100 percent of the cost of 100-year flood protection or give us 30 years to pay no more than 10 percent of the cost, with credit for past cash contributions and "fair market value" for future contributions of real estate and levee-building materials.