Good Morning, and thank you for joining us at the first field hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in this Congress. As the new Chair of this Committee, I felt that it was important for our very first field hearing to be here in New Orleans. The critical issues we will address today — hurricane protection, wetlands restoration and management of the massive amounts of debris left in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, are a top priority for this Committee.
This great American city, this beautiful state and region, continue to need our attention and will not be forgotten.
I want to thank the six members of the U.S. Senate who are here today in support of this effort. I particularly want to recognize my colleagues from Louisiana for ensuring that we continue to focus on the needs of this hard hit region.
Senator Landrieu asked if I would conduct this hearing as quickly as possible at the start of the new Congress since our Committee is responsible for oversight of the Army Corps of Engineers, wetlands and waste disposal — these issues continue to have central importance as we move forward in the aftermath of the hurricanes.
Senator Vitter is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and he has stressed the importance of dealing with ongoing challenges in his state, including the problems with debris and landfills. He asked that we hold a hearing on these issues, and I appreciate his strong interest in ensuring that the Committee play an active role in addressing these matters.
As Chairman of this Committee, I want to assure all involved that we will stay focused on what needs to be done.
The tragedy suffered by this region will be forever fixed in our minds. Since arriving last evening, members of this Committee have traveled to some of the devastated areas, including reviewing the damage from the air this morning. Although there are many signs of hope, much of the devastation from Katrina is still all too clear. A year and a half after the storms, a lot of work remains.
There have been serious failures by our government, and we must learn from the past. But I want to focus on the future. We want to be constructive, and to see what we can do now.
One thing I can assure you is that Congressional oversight of our government is back. When the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, or other federal agencies are doing something right, we will commend them. But when they are not doing their jobs, we want to know so the problem can be fixed—cooperatively, and in a bipartisan way.
The levees and floodwalls should have protected the people of New Orleans. But they failed, unleashing a tragedy and a horror that was to some unimaginable, but in fact was foreseeable.
We now have several studies looking at what went wrong in protecting this region. The region lacked a comprehensive and effective system to protect it from the kind of storm surges that came with Katrina and Rita.
As Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I am determined that we consider necessary legislation to address hurricane protection and restoration as part of the Water Resources Development Act—and that we do it this year.
It has been over 6 years since we had a Water Resources Development Act, and critical projects such as the Morganza hurricane protection project and the Louisiana Coastal Area program need action now.
We must commit ourselves to restoring Louisiana’s natural hurricane protection system—the wetlands. We know that when storms pass over warm, open Gulf waters, they strengthen. For centuries, the protective wetlands of the Louisiana coast blunted the force of countless storms, absorbing their energy and softening their impact.
But those wetlands have been disappearing before our eyes. Today, Louisana’s coastal wetlands are only half as wide as they were 50 years ago.
If we fail to restore Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands, there will be no floodwall high enough, no levee big enough, and no pumps strong enough to protect this city and coast.
We also need to address the disposal of tons of debris generated by the hurricanes and flooding. We will examine concerns about possible risks of release of chemicals from these landfills, potential risks of flooding of the landfills, and about illegal dumping in certain areas of the city.
I am committed to working with Senators Landrieu and Vitter and the members of this Committee to accomplish what is needed for Louisiana and the region. Today’s hearing is an important step in that process.