If no other good comes out of the Katrina disaster, it could be the realization by Congress and the administration of the need to overhaul the way they prioritize and rank the nation’s civil works projects. The suffering of the people of New Orleans and environs is a vivid, if painful, illustration of the necessity of targeting high-risk threats and high-value projects while abandoning the traditional political allocation of precious resources. As the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) begins to move through Congress, now is the time to consider a new approach that applies the venerable principle of war — concentration — to the Army Corps of Engineers and its civil works budget.
The recent announcements by the Bush administration that the cost of rebuilding New Orleans’ levees to federal standards had almost tripled to $10 billion, followed by a subsequent reduction in the cost estimate to $7.6 billion, only intensified the ongoing orgy of recriminations, second guessing, and general dismay over the failure of that levee system in the first place.
Originally, Donald E. Powell, the administration’s rebuilding coordinator, had indicated that some areas may be left without protection of levees meeting the requirements of the national flood insurance program. This would have made it more difficult for developers to take on the risk of rebuilding in those locales.
According to the Washington Post, Mr. Powell said these same areas would not be subject to catastrophic flooding, but “there might be some ‘manageable’ flooding.” Mr. Powell believed that the matter of the $6 billion shortfall was “an insurance issue, and not necessarily a safety issue.” No doubt, the numbers will continue to bounce around as the project moves forward.
Mr. Powell’s statements were regrettable but understandable. He was trying to take a relative risk or prioritization approach to the deployment of limited dollars. Powell had broken the parishes of New Orleans into 10 areas and was presenting state and local officials with comparisons and choices such as these:
Three sections of Plaquemines Parish contain less than 2 percent of the area’s population, but cost almost $2.5 to $2.9 billion to build certified levees. However, the Algiers area, which contains 13 percent of the region’s population, costs $129 million. Powell is asking the locals to help him make some tough calls in terms of who gets what.
The administration has, most recently, committed another $2.5 billion for levee work which will, according to the Post, ensure protection for 98 percent of the population in the four-parish region of New Orleans to meet flood insurance standards and protect against the “100-year flood.” However, it is unclear how much Louisiana must contribute. Moreover, still unresolved is the fate of lower Plaquemines Parish, a rural area with only 1,500 residents for whom levee improvements would now cost $1.6 billion.
To protect Plaquemines Parish, a long piece of land extending 60 miles southeast of New Orleans into the Gulf, would cost well over a million dollars for every person in the area. With almost 20 square miles of Louisiana coast eroding away every year, many parts of this parish are now under water.
NEVERTHELESS, POLITICIANS HATE these kinds of trade-offs. No where is this truer than in the manner in which Congress authorizes and appropriates funding for projects for the civil works program of the Army Corps of Engineers.
On the budget or appropriations side, the White House, OMB, and the Secretary of the Army develop the President’s budget priorities which are, in turn, subject to change or supplementation by congressional committees. Because the Corps’ total civil works budget has been reduced over recent decades, in terms of real dollars, and because a higher percentage of it goes to funding operations and maintenance activities, congressional add-ons put additional strain on already limited resources.
Of course, executive branch priorities are not infallible. But they are developed from a national perspective. And OMB, usually a constructive player in these matters, does look to optimize net economic benefits, which is at least an intellectually defensible basis for prioritization if not the only one.
“Concentration” is the overarching principle of war. It has been characterized as the concentration of superior forces and the strict economy of forces assigned to secondary missions. This venerable maxim of military strategy may provide a useful analogy for prioritizing the nation’s infrastructure investments as they relate to the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, especially in the area of flood protection, navigation, and even environmental restoration.
It’s time for Congress, the administration, and the Corps to apply this principle for the benefit of citizens and the taxpayers they serve by focusing, or concentrating, substantial but limited resources only on those essential undertakings that protect the lives and properties of Americans most at risk, or where there are opportunities for restoration of outstanding or critical environmental or natural resources, say, coastal wetlands in Louisiana.
Fortunately, there is a means at hand for implementing this fundamental reform in policy and practice: the Feingold-McCain bill. No, not McCain-Feingold. The bill in question has nothing to do with campaign finance, climate change, or any boneheaded move to “censure” the President.
The Water Resources Planning and Modernization Act of 2006 (S. 2288), co-sponsored by Senators Feingold and McCain, as a possible amendment to WRDA, is an imperfect vehicle for changing the way Congress handles Corps business. But we should not let the perfect become the enemy of the possible. As the current New Orleans predicament reveals, there is too much at stake to hold out for some unachievable Platonic notion of Corps reform.
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