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Spending Plan Holds Promises for Levees
But battle in Congress has New Orleans flood defense rebuilders holding their breaths
By Tom Ichniowski and Angelle Bergeron
Hitchings: Reconstructed and beefed-up system would lessen the chance of catastrophic failure, but would not likely prevent flooding in another major storm. (Photo by Angelle Bergeron for ENR)

A broadly supported spending measure battling its way through Congress would double the amount of federal emergency funds available for rebuilding and hardening hurricane-hammered New Orleans levees. But at ENR press time, final passage was entangled with another hotly contested issue.

After emerging from a House and Senate conference committee, the final version of the bill to which the levee repair provision is attached was approved Dec. 19 with a 308-106 vote by the full House. But the Senate balked over another provision that was attached in committee by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration (see story, p. 9). Should the measure pass, New Orleans reconstruction officials could not say if it would fund a program to bring the city’s flood defenses to a level that would beat back a Category 3 hurricane.

The proposed $2.9-billion infusion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is part of a $32-billion hurricane relief package that House and Senate negotiators attached to a fiscal year 2006 Dept. of Defense spending measure. The new hurricane relief plan is nearly twice as large as the $17 billion that President George W. Bush had recommended, and it has a much heavier emphasis on infrastructure work than other emergency funds approved in recent months. But the fate of the entire package hinged on the Senate, which was poised on Dec. 21 for critical votes on the Arctic oil exploration rider.

If the measure passes, the Corps’ allotment of $2.4 billion for flood control includes funding “at full federal expense repairs to non-federal levees and pumps and to construct levees and floodwalls to original design levels rather than pre-storm conditions,” according to the conference report. It specifies that $544 million is “to accelerate the completion of unconstructed portions of authorized hurricane, storm damage reduction and flood control projects in the greater New Orleans and south Louisiana area.”

(Diagram courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The measure includes $225 million for southeast Louisiana, $121 million for Lake Pontchartrain and vicinity and $148 million for West Bank New Orleans and vicinity. Another $75 million was earmarked for emergency repairs in Mississippi. The report says $468 million of the $2.4 billion is to reimburse other Corps projects from which the agency transferred funds to finance the early post-storm repairs.

Some of the $2.4 billion is intended to cover “the increased cost of mat-laying operations due to storm impacts.” The Corps uses a barge-operated mat-laying system to armor the water side of levees with prefabricated mats.

On top of the $2.4 billion is another $328 million “to restore navigation channels and harbors to pre-storm conditions and to repair flood damage reduction and other projects in states affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ophelia and Wilma.” Some of that figure is for erosion protection for hurricane protection projects along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a light commercial shipping channel that runs just outside New Orleans’ eastern line of levee defenses. Some researchers believe the MRGO channel may have contributed to the city’s flooding disaster. There is no money allotted for redredging it.

Dan Hitchings, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers director of the New Orleans reconstruction effort dubbed Task Force Hope, said the new money would let the Corps bolster and improve the system, even if levees were overtopped. Armoring the levees against scour damage would help keep them intact even if they were overtopped and shielding the pump stations from floodwaters would ensure their survival.

But Hitchings believes flood defenses reconstructed to the level authorized by the bill would not prevent flooding from another storm of Katrina’s strength. Speaking at a Dec. 15 press conference in New Orleans, Hitchings said counter-measures include correcting the slope of levees and adding a rock base on the water side of canal levees to break down waves and prevent undermining. Placing rocks or gabion baskets of wire or fabric would reduce scour on the back side in the event of overtopping.

Still, depending upon direction and surge, storms weaker than a Category 3 hurricane could overtop levees in parts of eastern New Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, even with the currently scheduled levee improvements, Hitchings said. He also warned that the system will not be able to withstand the impact if stronger storms hit in the next hurricane season.

Current and pending appropriations do not include funding for long-term solutions like floodgates and new pumping stations.

Related Links:
  • $3 Billion Proposed for New Orleans Levee Work, But No Safety Guarantee,
  • Sheet Piles Pulled in Big Easy Measure Up: Test Tools Donít
  • Levees - Peer Review Panel Named,

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