Hurricane Katrina was a terrible tragedy that has touched the lives of every American. As we rebuild, we must rebuild in a fashion that provides devastated communities with a higher level of flood protection when the next hurricane strikes. In particular, we must quickly engage experts to consider ways to improve existing levees and other flood control infrastructure, seek opportunities to move vulnerable homes and businesses from harm’s way, and begin the long overdue restoration of coastal Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands and barrier islands.
Nothing less than the future of New Orleans and surrounding parishes is at stake. A meaningful rebuilding package must above all provide assurance that people and property will be secure in the future – or there is little hope that business and community leaders will invest in the region’s future again.
To be successful, flood loss reduction efforts must be integrated – efforts to rebuild or expand levees must be integrated with decisions to build the diversions and pipelines needed to restore lost wetlands as well as local decisions to redevelop flooded neighborhoods.
Most importantly, Congress and the Corps of Engineers must treat flood protection and wetland restoration efforts with far greater urgency than we have in the past. Before Katrina struck, Congress and the Corps envisioned that we could replace lost wetlands and barriers islands in decades, not years. Before Katrina, Congress and the Corps envisioned we could provide a higher level of structural flood protection in decades, not years.
Today, in the wake of Katrina, every American recognizes the unique vulnerability of New Orleans and it surrounding parishes, and understands the role that federal flood control and navigation projects have played in the loss of costal wetlands.
Every year, more than 25 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are lost because Mississippi River sediments that once spread out and replenished the river’s coastal delta are now funneled into the Gulf of Mexico by federal flood control levees and navigation training structures. More than 1 million acres of coastal wetlands -- or 1,900 square miles -- have been lost since 1930, and more than 300,000 acres of additional wetlands will be lost by 2050 if nothing is done. These wetlands and barrier islands play a critical role in the protection of our homes, businesses and critical infrastructure, reducing storm surge and absorbing wave energy.
One of the lessons reaffirmed by Katrina is that altering the natural movement of sediment and water often has severe unintended and unwanted consequences. Lining the Mississippi River with levees has reduced the flood threat posed by the river – but has, by contributing to the loss of coastal wetlands, made the flood threat posed by hurricanes far greater. Destroying 20,000 acres of wetlands that once acted as a natural hurricane barrier to create the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet has instead created what local officials call a “hurricane highway” that increased Katrina’s storm surge by 20 to 40 percent and velocities more than three-fold.
Katrina also demonstrated that building levees to intentionally encourage development in harm’s way – and using the projected “benefits” of induced development in these wetlands to help justify the construction of levees – have catastrophic consequences when these levees fail. To justify the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project, for example, the Corps extended levees to the east of New Orleans to encourage the development of wetlands, according to a 1974 Corps report to Congress. Tragically, many of the homes built in these reclaimed swamps were filled to their rooftops when Katrina struck. Because so many Corps flood control projects induce development in harm’s way, flood damages have more than tripled in real dollars in the past 80 years – even as the Corps has spent more than $120 billion on flood control projects.
In the wake of Katrina, we also recognize the importance of subjecting costly or controversial water projects to independent review. Levee design failures – design failures that might have been detected by independent experts – and the “surge funnel” created by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet contributed to this tragedy. According to Peter Nicholson, a civil engineering professor testifying on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers before the Government Affairs Committee last week, the “funneling of the surge” into the MRGO and, ultimately, the Inner Harbor Navigation Channel caused widespread overtopping of levees. Other levees, according to Nicholson, experienced a wide range of damage that could be attributed to the materials used in their construction, “transitions” between different sections of levees, and “obvious soil failures within the embankment or foundation soils at or below the bases of the levees.” In particular, three levee failures along the 17th Street and London Avenue canals were most likely caused by failures in the foundation soils underlying the levees, according to a preliminary report by the ASCE.
This is not the first time the Corps of Engineers has relied on faulty science, engineering or economics. The Government Accountability Office has in recent years found that Corps studies have overestimated the number of vessels that would use an expanded waterway, overestimated the number of vessels that would use an expanded inlet, overestimated the number of homes and businesses protected by an expanded levee, and largely failed to mitigate for the environmental impacts of completed projects. The Army’s own Inspector General found that senior Corps leaders intentionally exaggerated the benefits of longer Mississippi River locks, and both the National Academy of Sciences and the Congressional Research Service concluded that Corps studies overestimated expected traffic on the river. Last year, the NAS called for sweeping reforms and modernization of the Corps’ project planning process, including independent review of many studies.
Until now, Congress and the Corps have largely failed to address the Corps’ use of faulty science and economics, have largely failed to reform our flood control and insurance programs to discourage development in harm’s way, and have largely failed to make the protection of population centers and critical infrastructure our highest civil works priority. Critical flood protection construction and maintenance have been delayed or abandoned so that the Corps could build or maintain projects that return little benefit to the taxpayers. Projects designed to protect farm fields have received no greater priority than projects designed to protect people and critical infrastructure.
Corps spending in Louisiana illustrates this problem. Congress invested nearly $2 billion on Louisiana water projects over the past five years. But, much of these funds were invested in questionable projects that did nothing to avert the destructive impacts of Hurricane Katrina. While nationwide spending on the Corps projects grew steadily during the past decade, from $3.2 billion in FY 1996 to $4.7 billion in FY 2005, annual spending on levees designed to protect New Orleans from a Category 3 storm declined from roughly $15 million a year to roughly $5 million a year, extending the project completion date for the city’s structural hurricane protection project to 2015. A $12 million study to evaluate the benefits and costs of protecting New Orleans from a Category 5 storm has been delayed for years. This serious lack of prioritization is not limited to Louisiana. At the same time that the nation’s civil works infrastructure faces a multibillion dollar backlog of critical maintenance needs, Congress continues to commit 30 percent of our waterway maintenance funding to waterways that carry approximately 3 percent of nation’s waterborne commerce.
Our organizations make the following recommendations:
First, Congress must act quickly to require the development of a comprehensive plan to raise existing levees, to relocate vulnerable structures, and to restore lost wetlands and barrier islands. This comprehensive plan should be developed by a team of hydrologists, scientists, and engineers, led by an independent commission of three experts of national reputation appointed by the President after consultation with the Governor. An independent commission will reassure business leaders that efforts to improve our natural and man-made flood protection infrastructure will be undertaken quickly and competently. Promises of future funding will not provide business and community leaders with appropriate assurances.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must play a central role in the design and construction of flood control and restoration projects, and we recommend that the commission be headquartered in the office of the Secretary of the Army. But, the commission should have the power to contract private engineering firms and institutions to supplement the Corps’ capacity and expertise. A task force of state and federal officials should also be created to guide the commission’s efforts.
Second, Congress should appropriate, in the next disaster supplemental, $5.5 billion to begin the restoration of lost coastal wetlands and barrier islands and $5 billion to enhance existing flood control infrastructure to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 storm. As you know, the Corps and the State of Louisiana have already developed an ambitious, peer-reviewed plan to begin the construction of diversions, pipelines and other projects that will restore our natural hurricane protection system. Many of these critical restoration projects can be constructed immediately with no impact on traditional uses of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. Indeed, some restoration projects offer the chance to dramatically improve navigation on the Mississippi River and flood protection. A summary of these and other restoration opportunities is attached.
Third, Congress should immediately close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Traffic on the MRGO has fallen by more than 50 percent since 1986. Today, less than one oceangoing vessel per day, on average, uses this man-made short cut, which costs approximately $13 million annually to maintain. Like many waterways constructed by the Corps, the MRGO has failed to attract as much traffic as the Corps predicted when the project was constructed. In fact, only two of 14 waterways constructed since World War II have attracted as much traffic as the Corps predicted. Rather than rebuilding the levees along the MRGO, the Corps should immediately close the channel and devise a plan to prevent salt water intrusion and ongoing channel erosion.
Fourth, Congress should reform FEMA mitigation and relocation programs to move flood victims from harm’s way. Many flood victims would move their homes and business from harm’s way, but current law requires state or local government to share 25% of the cost of hazard mitigation – a requirement that no state or local agencies can meet in the wake of Katrina. Congress should waive the cost-sharing requirements for these hazard mitigation programs, and should reinstate FEMA’s authority to use up to 15% of disaster assistance for these efforts.
Finally, Congress should reform the civil works planning process to ensure that urgent, worthy civil works projects are given the highest priority by the Administration and Congress.
To meet this goal, Congress should subject costly or controversial Army Corps projects to independent review and should require the Corps to periodically update the agency’s planning tools to reflect the best available science and economics. Independent reviews could be undertaken at the same time as public review of draft studies, thereby ensuring that studies would not be delayed. Both of these reforms have been proposed by the National Academy of Sciences.
Congress should also direct the Corps to meet state standards for the replacement of wetlands and other habitats destroyed by worthy water projects – that is, Congress should direct the Corps to meet the same standards as private developers. The GAO recently found that the Corps failed to mitigate for nearly 70 percent of the civil works projects constructed since 1986, when modern mitigation laws were enacted. Our failure to mitigate for impacts of public and private water projects in the past have set the stage for the damage wrought by Katrina.
Congress should direct an interagency council to establish priorities for the nation’s civil works spending. Although funds for the construction and maintenance of Army Corps water projects have steadily increased over the past decade to $4.7 billion annually, the backlog of authorized projects may soon exceed $70 billion. Many of these projects no longer address national priorities. Congress should direct an interagency council to set priorities for flood control spending so that scare resources are used to meet the nation’s most critical flood damage reduction needs, to protect developed areas and critical infrastructure from flooding, to provide net economic benefits, and to avoid the needless destruction of wetlands and other environmental resources that serve as our first line of defense against hurricanes and floods. Critical flood control projects designed to protect people and public infrastructure should no longer take a back seat to projects designed to promote new development in frequently flooded floodplains.
As we rebuild, we must also prepare for the next hurricane. We must restore our coastal wetlands and barrier islands, but faster and with more urgency than has been proposed in the past. We must enhance our levees and other flood control infrastructure to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 storm. We must ensure that the Corps of Engineers uses the best available science and economics, subjected to independent review, to plan and prioritize future water projects. And, we must take steps to avoid the needless destruction of our natural flood reduction system.