Good morning and welcome to this Committee’s oversight hearing on activities in response to Hurricane Katrina. The EPW Committee has been actively engaged since the hurricane struck land over one month ago. Since Katrina hit, we have held nearly 10 briefings for members and staff, including 2 closed door briefings. In fact, this is the third time in the past month that both EPA and the Corps have come before us for either a briefing or hearing on Katrina – it is the second time for the Federal Highway Administration. I want to thank all of you for your cooperation with this Committee.
We have much to talk about today as the EPA, the Corps and Federal Highway Administration are all playing key roles in the clean up, recovery and rebuilding effort in the Gulf states. The Corps continues to dewater the city of New Orleans, pumping the water into Lake Ponchartrain. I was pleased to learn that the level of contamination in Ponchartrain may not be as bad as was once feared. The Corps is also in charge of debris removal. Senator Vitter and I have written to both the Corps and EPA asking that they ensure this waste is managed properly and that existing permitted landfill capacity is utilized before we even consider opening up old, less desirable landfills. I know the state is very involved in this issue, but as long as we are spending federal dollars, we should be certain that the money is spent both wisely and in a manner that does not create future problems. In fact, I intend to watch very closely ALL dollars spent on Katrina to make sure they are spent wisely - in the clean up, recovery and reconstruction. We simply can’t afford to waste money or to spend money on projects with little or no oversight.
We also are here to discuss the future of the vital infrastructure in the Gulf states. Katrina did unprecedented damage to highways and highway bridges in the Gulf States. I look forward to hearing from the Federal Highway Administration about what they are doing to respond to this disaster. The most recent estimate I've heard about the cost of repairs to highways and highway bridges damaged by Katrina has been lowered from $2.4 billion to $1.6 billion. This is good news. I understand these are initial estimates, but I'm interested in when these estimates will be more stable. There was also substantial damage done to Gulf states’ water treatment and works systems. While EPA is still assessing how bad the damage is, we look forward to working with them to ensure drinking water supplies.
Without doubt the largest infrastructure project is going to be the flood control system in New Orleans. The levee system in place did not work - we still don’t know if it failed or was breached - but it did not protect the city. We need to understand why it didn’t work and what we can do to avoid the problems and delays that were faced in the past. We all know that in 1977, lawsuits by environmental groups not only delayed the flood control solution for New Orleans, but forced the Corps to abandon its preferred solution. Those facts are simply not in dispute. Many experts who were involved in that process nearly 30 years ago are convinced that the project the Corps abandoned because of the environmentalist lawsuit, in all likelihood, would have saved New Orleans. Let me quote three former, well respected, career Corps employees who were there 30 years ago:
Rob Vining, Former Chief of Civil Works Program Management Division, Army Corps of Engineers
“There is no question that environmental activists, through their aggressively pursued litigation, forced the Corps and the local sponsors to compromise the level of protection that otherwise would have been available to residents of New Orleans.”
Joseph Towers - Former Chief Counsel of the Army Corps of Engineers:
“If we had built the barriers, New Orleans would not have flooded. I told my staff at the time that this judge had condemned the city. Some people said I was being a little dramatic.”
Fred Caver, Former Deputy Director of Civil Works, Army Corps of Engineers
“The essential outcome of the 1977 lawsuit was that it caused the Army Corps to revert away from the Hurricane Protection Barriers to a secondary plan...that the Corps knew was inferior for the protection of New Orleans. The levees that broke during Hurricane Katrina were in place because the Corps was prevented from building the Hurricane Protection Barrier as a result of the lawsuit, and the Corps had to revert to the secondary, inferior plan...”
Those outside the Corps came to similar conclusions:
Gregory Stone, Professor and Director of the Coastal Studies Institute of Louisiana State Universisty
The abandoned plan “would have likely reduced storm surge coming from the Gulf and into Lake Ponchartrain . These floodgates would have alleviated the flooding of New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina.”