Breach of Faith Redux: Is the Army Corps of Engineers Learning From Past Mistakes?

On February 11, I wrote a piece for the paper version of Unfair Park in which I said officials in New Orleans shared blame for the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Specifically, I wrote, "The locals had pushed and pulled for a century to get the federal government to help them build cheap, badly designed levees so their real estate cousin-buddies could sell flood land to middle-class and poor people."

In the last week I have received several e-mails from people in New Orleans complaining about my characterization and telling me they had never heard my version of things before. The messages have a similarity in structure, tone and content that makes me suspect some kind of boiler room operation here. It's impossible for me to believe that anybody in New Orleans is hearing this for the first time.

If the people e-mailing me from New Orleans had only read their own newspaper, The Times-Picayune, they would know about the bitter battles in the 1980s when three parishes -- Plaquemines, Jefferson and St. Bernard -- fought federal officials (in this case, the Federal Emergency Management Agency) over tougher flood safety measures for New Orleans. As much of that reporting's no longer available online, read instead Times-Picayune metro editor Jed Horne's 2006 book Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, much of which is available online (of particular note is the chapter "Sue the Bastards").

I have to believe people interested in this topic would also read other newspapers, including The New York Times, in which case they might have seen John Schwartz's July 17, 2007, story "Engineers Faulted on Hurricane System," reporting on the U.S. Army Corps' of Engineers own report. The Corps took a lot of blame on itself, but its report also talked about the ''tyranny of incremental decisions'' by officials at every level, including the locals.

The locals might chalk that up to the Corps trying to shift blame, but it's a conclusion repeated plainly in other studies, including the one done by a 14-member external review panel of civil engineers.

We here in Dallas knew about that one, in part because the head of the panel was a local academic, David E. Daniel, now president of the University of Texas at Dallas. In fact, I wrote a piece about that report in 2006. I quoted Dr. Ed Link, a senior research engineer at the University of Maryland, who said that the levee system in New Orleans was the creature of competing political interests: "There were a lot of competing forces at the federal level and local level. A lot of the structure that eventually got built was significantly less than what the original concept was."

Link said the influence of local officials was mainly to make the levees cheaper: "There's cost sharing that has been mandated that requires a local entity to pay 35 percent of the cost. A lot of local entities try very very hard to drive the total cost of the project down to make that 35 percent as small as possible."

What I am presenting here is the very surface of a much deeper body of finding that has shown that local officials in New Orleans, though not solely or maybe even primarily responsible for the levee failures, share significant blame. Much of that blame is linked to real estate interests and to the timidity of local pols about raising taxes.

One of my e-mail critics has suggested it's absurd to think people in New Orleans didn't want the best flood protection they could get. To that I must ask, Which people in New Orleans?

Homeowners? Sure. I assume that's probably true. I wonder if they were willing to pay the tax and insurance cost of that protection, but I will stipulate to the notion that they would all have preferred not to have their homes destroyed by a flood.

But what about the people who scraped that muddy land, put in streets and houses and sold it off to today's hapless homeowners? Did those developers care what happened after they had taken their profits and moved to Palm Springs? I don't know. Did Bernie Madoff care? Or Enron? That's a cultural and moral question that's probably above my pay grade.

All I know is that ultimately New Orleans is responsible for taking care of New Orleans. As I say, I find the e-mails I'm getting suspect. They are suspect on a number of levels, including the repeated claim that New Orleans bears no blame at all for its own suffering. It's the big downside of democracy. In the end, we all get what we vote for.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze