[StBernard] A Reworked New Orleans Panel Adopts a Get-Tough Attitude on Levee Repairs

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Apr 18 20:10:15 EDT 2007

A Reworked New Orleans Panel Adopts a Get-Tough Attitude on Levee Repairs
NEW ORLEANS - After years as a symbol of government sloth and corruption,
the levee board here, newly revamped, is flexing its muscle and pushing the
Army Corps of Engineers to prepare the city better for the next big storm.

Board members are talking tough with the corps about speeding up work to
repair canals and pumping stations. They are demanding that areas of the
levee system be fortified now instead of waiting for a long-term hurricane
protection plan. And they are dumping past projects and programs not
directly related to helping the city resist another calamity.

"We're in a honeymoon period," said Timothy P. Doody, a member of the board
from St. Bernard Parish. "If we're going to get anything done, now's the

In most river towns, it would not be a surprise to see levee board members
doing their jobs, which are often vital to a region's physical security. But
in years past, before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hammered the region, the
New Orleans board was criticized by local residents as corrupt, ineffective
and overly focused on a multimillion-dollar Mardi Gras fountain and a

The board's levee inspections were largely ceremonial twice-a-year drives
around the levee system with the corps, followed by an expensive lunch. And
even though the New Orleans area needed a unified system of storm
protection, levee governance was fragmented among the parish-level boards.

After the storms, the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment
consolidating many of the New Orleans-area boards into just two regional
boards. The law required that members, who are appointed by the governor,
have expertise in fields like engineering, hydrology, geology and law.

"It's a real step forward," said G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia
Institute of Technology and the head of a National Research Council
committee evaluating the corps investigation of the levee breaches. Dr.
Clough said the improved levee board, along with a still-needed external
oversight organization to ensure that the corps rebuilds the hurricane
protection system well, were essential elements of a safer New Orleans.

Thomas L. Jackson, the president of one of the boards, the Southeast
Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, is a retired engineer and a
former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. A native of
Metairie, Mr. Jackson is also a member of an outside group of experts called
on by the corps investigation.

He is one of five engineers on the board now. And board members will learn
even more at a three-day "levee school" this summer planned by Louisiana
State University that will cover topics like levee maintenance and wetlands

The expertise is not solely technical, however. The secretary of the board,
John M. Barry, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Rising Tide: The
Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," (Simon &
Schuster, 1998). Col. Jeffrey A. Bedey, commander of the corps' Hurricane
Protection Office in New Orleans, keeps a copy of the book on his desk.

"I made it mandatory reading" for senior staff members, Colonel Bedey said,
adding that having a unified board with such depth was a "great

The second New Orleans-area board created by the constitutional amendment,
the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West Bank, largely
represents the communities on the west bank of the Mississippi. The East
board has already shown some muscle - and heat. At a meeting in March
concerning conditions in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, Mr.
Jackson expressed anger over drainage canals that had not been cleared of
debris by the corps and pumps that push rainwater into the canals still
running at greatly reduced capacity.

"It's, in my mind, appalling" to have so much undone so long after the
storm, he said.

At the St. Bernard meeting, members and local citizens demanded action on
stretches of levee along waterways like the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal
that are still lower than the rest of the system. Low spots can overflow in
high water and become the next devastating breaches.

The corps had planned to fix this problem - which Colonel Bedey says "keeps
me up nights" - as it has fixed smaller drainage canals: by putting gates in
place to block surges and keep the lower segments from being tested. The new
gates would not be complete until 2010.

But after strong urging by the board in the St. Bernard meeting and
subsequent sessions, the corps has agreed to look at ways to speed the
process with measures like temporary gates or quick patches.

The challenges ahead are daunting; so much is still in ruins. The St.
Bernard Parish meeting was held in a trailer behind the ruined parish
government offices; the parish president, Henry Rodriguez Jr., is still
living in a trailer at the complex.

The new board is also working under the heavy weight of the old boards'
obligations, including a $20 million legal judgment against the Orleans
Levee District, which led a federal district judge in March to begin
proceedings that could lead to seizure of the new board's assets.

Then there are the other obligations, which the board calls "nonflood
assets," that accumulated over time, including parks and bike paths along
Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi that the old board built and
maintained and which the new board wants to hand off to other agencies.

"We're spending an enormous amount of time separating flood assets from
nonflood assets," Mr. Barry, the board secretary, said. He declined to
criticize the old board's decision to build businesses like casinos,
however, since well-run businesses "can create revenue and help you

But, he added, "The question is, what do you spend your time on?" The new
board, he said, is "interested in levees."

Some elements of the old Orleans board's legacy are more troubling. The old
board fought plans by the corps to erect floodgates at the mouths of the
drainage canals, lobbying Congress instead to order the corps to raise the
levees along the canals. Now that canal floodwall failures have devastated
the city, the corps has built the gates and pumps it originally wanted, at
great expense and at a pace that led to nagging problems with the new pumps.

Bruce Feingerts, a New Orleans lawyer who represented the Orleans levee
board in its fight against the corps in the 1980s, defended the old board by
arguing that it was not originally configured to be made up of experts, but
to be the money men who lined up the local share of the costs.

The early plan for gates caused worries that they might be expensive to
maintain and might not work as well as simply building higher levees. The
corps, when rebuffed on the gates plan, did not argue that the backup plan
to build floodwalls would be less safe.

"The levee board greatly looked to the Corps of Engineers for expertise,"
Mr. Feingerts said.

The new board members know that, as with all good-government initiatives,
theirs could find itself mired and accomplish little. Mr. Barry said the
board's long-term influence over the city's future was unclear.

"We may discover that we don't have nearly as much power as we hope that we
have," he said, adding, "One thing that is not going to happen is, we're not
going to lose our focus."

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