In early 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, ranked a major hurricane hit on New Orleans as among the three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing the United States. The other two were a massive San Francisco earthquake and, prophetically, a terrorist attack on New York City.
Hurricane Georges barely missed New Orleans in September 1998, and the city’s century-old levee system barely held back the waters. “Georges, a Category 2 storm that only grazed New Orleans, had pushed waves to within a foot of the top of the levees,” reported Times-Picayune writers Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid in a 2002 article. “A stronger storm on a slightly different course — such as the path Georges was on just 16 hours before landfall — could have realized emergency officials’ worst-case scenario: hundreds of billions of gallons of water pouring over the levees into an area averaging five feet below sea level with no natural means of drainage.”
Schleifstein and McQuaid projected the consequences: “Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter in New Orleans for people too sick or infirm to leave the city. Others will end up in last-minute refuges that will offer minimal safety. But many will simply be on their own, in homes or looking for high ground.”
Additionally, envisioned Schleifstein and McQuaid, “Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days.”
Writing in Editor & Publisher on Aug. 31, the day Katrina was moving north of New Orleans, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Will Bunch explained that Congress, 10 years earlier, authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA, when flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people.
“The Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations,” writes Bunch. “But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside. Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressure of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security — coming at the same time as federal tax cuts — was the reason for the strain.”
In early 2004, reports Bunch, the Bush administration proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was required for key repairs at Lake Pontchartrain. In June 2004, Walter Maestri, the emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, told the Times-Picayune: “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we’re doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”
In early 2005, the Bush administration came back with “the steepest reduction in hurricane and flood-control funding for New Orleans in history,” writes Bunch. “Because of the proposed cuts, the Corps office in New Orleans has imposed a hiring freeze.”
All told, the full $250 million that was needed to complete the levee projects is just about equal to what we’re spending in Iraq per day — just for military operations, not counting the price of reconstruction.
At FEMA, George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, assumed the top position in 2001. In congressional testimony, after stating that FEMA was viewed by many as “an oversized entitlement program,” Allbaugh explained that President Bush’s goal was to “move away from the expectation that the federal government is the option of first resort to the option of last resort.”
Asserting that “disaster mitigation and prevention activities are inherently grass roots,” Allbaugh recommended that cities and states look more to “faith-based organizations,” like “the Mennonite Disaster Service” and “the Baptist Church mobile feeding kitchen.”
Unfortunately, the Mennonites never got around to fixing the levees.
Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
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