Pork Barrel Spending and the Katrina Flood:
In his post below on the Washington Post story on spending by the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana, David writes:
  [T]he article suggests that the Corps of Engineers exists almost entirely to fund pork barrel projects. So much for those who argue that the essential problem was parsimonious Republicans or a weak state. The essential problem (beyond Mother Nature), as is often the case, was short-sighted politicians.
  I read the article a bit differently. As I see it, the article makes the point that while the Army Corps of Engineers put lots of resources into Louisiana, "much" of it aimed at keeping New Orleans dry, some of the money was put towards other projects that may or may not have been needed. The article doesn't say exactly how much, but says that "hundreds of millions" of the $1.9 billion spent by the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana was unrelated to keeping New Orleans dry.

  If I'm not mistaken, however, the article doesn't provide any reason to conclude that the pork barrel spending facilitated or caused the flooding of New Orleans. I'm no expert on the question, of course, but my sense is that the flooding resulted primarily from the combination of a) long-term government planning for only a Category 3 Hurricane hitting New Orleans and b) a Category 4 hurricane hitting New Orleans. The article notes that the Army Corps of Engineers had started to study the feasibility of upgrading the levees for a higher level of protection, but the study was obviously too late. If that's right, then the primary problem that led to the flooding would seem to be more poor long-term risk planning or just plain bad luck than pork barrel spending.
Eric Anondson (mail):
What were the strength of the winds that actually struck New Orleans? I have been under the impression that while the Cat 4 hurricane struck Mississippi and the far eastern Louisiana delta, New Orleans only had Cat 2 Hurricane wind strength...

If that is the case, isn't right to say that the New Orleans water defenses didn't even stand up to a Cat 2 hurricane?

The Cat 3 planning hoped to hold back a storm surge, and that higher storm surges would overtop the water defenses. This didn't happen with Katrina. The water defenses were not overtopped, which a Cat 4 hurricane wind would have done. The water defenses worked for that.

What went wrong is that one of the newly rebuilt canal sea walls burst open.
9.8.2005 3:39pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
The basic and non-partisan problem seems to be a very large scale environmental management issue and includes channelizing the Mississippi, destroying its wetlands, building a major city settlement (New Orleans) below sea-level and then pumping NO's groundwater allowing the city to further subside. There is only so much that mechanical contrivances (pumps and levees) can do if you don't pay attaention to the underlying ecology.

People who seek to make the large issue -- obviously GW Bush's team blew it in the short term immediate crisis -- of river/delta management a partisan one are on the wrong boat.
9.8.2005 3:50pm
Another reason for inaction, which does not seem to get much attention, was that there was (and is) considerable disagreement over exactly what should be done. It has been widely noted that Louisiana's problems were made worse by land subsidence and loss of coastal wetlands. Levees caused the problem by channeling the Mississippi and preventing it from silting up its delta; pumping on canals removes groundwater and causes subsidence. More levees and more pumping could make the problem worse.

There was much contention between the Corps and academic experts at LSU over exactly what to do. This made it easy to do nothing and spend the money somewhere else. A parallel should be drawn to the similar situation in Venice, where debate raged and nothing was done for decades.
9.8.2005 3:53pm
Eric -

The media doesn't get it, but the problem in N.O. was caused by Cat 5 storm surge. Wind damage depends on Cat/speed at landfall, but storm surge is caused by the wind over coastal water (fetch).
9.8.2005 3:58pm
zaoem (mail):
I think the appropriations process played a huge role in the disaster. We have to ask why it is that New Orleans, with 1 million inhabitants at risk, was protected only up to 80-year storms whereas a less wealthy country like the Netherlands, but with more centralized budget procedures, protects its citizens for 1 in 10,000 year storms. Just think how you would get a Congressional coalition for spending the necessary 20 billion before the storm. It is impossible. Our budget process leads to smaller specific projects or large projects that can be divided among districts unless there is a centralized initiative by the executive.
9.8.2005 4:07pm
Eric Anondson (mail):
A Cat 5/4 storm surge would have gone over the levee. The storm surge didn't go over the levees.
9.8.2005 4:19pm
cirby (mail):
One of the stories I read about the 17th Street Canal said that the water was four feet below the top of the levee when the levee broke (8.5 feet on a 12.5 foot wall), and it looks like it was a barge hitting it that caused the break.

Overall, the storm surge wasn't anywhere near what it would have taken to overflow the levee system.
9.8.2005 4:22pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
Zaoem suggests that "politics" prevented protecting NO from a 10,000 year storm (if indeed that is the standard used in the netherlands) — says it is a bad thing.

My response is to agree with the first clause but wonder if in fact it makes no sense for society at large to encourage people to live in such dangerous spots — considering our vast national un-funded needs — and that we shouldn't spend our limited treasure on maintaining such outposts.

One immediate solution for NO since it is there and abandoning it totally involves other enormous social costs (and posed as a question as I lack sufficient technical knowledge to be sure) is to fill its low-lying areas so that it becomes above sea-level.

see my post at
Floodproof New Orleans by filling parts of it?
9.8.2005 4:25pm
MDJD2B (mail):
"My response is to agree with the first clause but wonder if in fact it makes no sense for society at large to encourage people to live in such dangerous spots — considering our vast national un-funded needs — and that we shouldn't spend our limited treasure on maintaining such outposts."

It makes sense if that dangerous spot is the highest navigable point for oceangoing vessels on a river that serves as the main transportation hub for bulk goods for half the nation. Even if relocatable commerce were to relocate, and if there were a decision not to revive the tourism and convention business-- and NO is a central location with generally clement weather and lots of things to do at night-- it might be difficult or impossible to find alternate port facilities.
9.8.2005 4:54pm
TC (mail):
Here is a report from the Newhouse News Service that gives the reasons for the flooding:

As Katrina approached the coast early that Monday, the easterly winds from its northern quadrant pumped a rising storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico into a marshy area due east of the city. There, two hurricane levees come together into a large V-shape. Storm surge modelers say that point acts as a giant funnel: Water pouring into the confined area rises up -- perhaps as much as 20 feet in this case -- and is funneled between the levees all the way into New Orleans.

The water likely overtopped the levee along the north side adjacent to eastern New Orleans, according to Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans project manager Al Naomi.

The surge poured into the Industrial Canal running through New Orleans before dawn and quickly overflowed it on both sides, the canal lockmaster reported to the corps. At some point not long afterward, corps officials believe a barge broke loose and crashed through the floodwall, opening a breach that accelerated flooding into New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.

The floodwaters moved quickly.

By around 8 a.m., authorities reported rising water on both sides of the Industrial Canal in New Orleans, in St. Bernard and in eastern New Orleans. The Coast Guard reported sighting residents on rooftops in the Upper Ninth Ward.

At 9 a.m., there was six to eight feet of water in the Lower Ninth Ward, state officials said. Less than two hours later, most of St. Bernard was a lake 10 feet deep. "We know people were up in the attics hollering for help," state Sen. Walter Boasso said that morning.

Sometime that Monday morning, the 17th Street Canal levee burst when storm surge waters pressed against it and possibly overtopped it, corps officials say.

Naomi said he believed the breach occurred mid- or late-morning after Katrina's eye had passed east of the city. By that time, north winds would have pushed storm surge water in Lake Pontchartrain south against the hurricane levees and into the canals, which normally drain water from the city into the lake.

Then the wind shifted to the west.

"As I remember it the worst of the storm had passed when we got word the floodwall had collapsed," Naomi said. "It could have been when we were experiencing westerly winds in the aftermath of the storm, which would have been pushing water against it."

Naomi and other corps officials say they believe that the water in the canal overtopped the levee on the Orleans Parish side, weakening its structure on the interior side and precipitating its collapse. However, Van Heerden said he does not believe the water was high enough in the lake to top the 14-foot wall and that instead the pressure caused a "catastrophic structural failure."

It's not clear when floodwalls in the London Avenue canal were breached, but Naomi said it may have been around the same time.

Once the floodwalls failed, water -- then at about eight feet or higher in the lake -- began to pour into New Orleans from the west, beginning the full-scale nightmare emergency managers and other officials most feared.

9.8.2005 4:55pm
JAK24 (mail):
It seems to me that the cause of this horrific tragedy was made worse by the levees breaking right? If so, why is it that Congress is not being questioned about the way the money for Louisiana was allocated. Better yet, why aren't the representatives of Louisiana being held accountable for thinking of their own pockets before the people that voted them in? How is Bush responsible for what Congress did? I understand that some people feel as though he took too much time to respond but then again the Governor and Mayor wanted to try and handle the situation themselves. One more point, I once heard someone say that although Bush is a little slower than we like when it comes to taking action, his second idea is always better than his first. I have to agree, for example 9/11.
9.8.2005 5:31pm
The basic problem is that New Orleans is not built on "land" in the traditional sense of land. When we decided to have a navigable deep-water shipping channel between the where the delta starts and the gulf, we decided to let the delta erode away into the sea, and that the land where New Orleans sits will become open sea with an elevated channel flowing through it surrounded on both sides by levees. The slow-and-steady process of erosion, not counteracted by river flood for decades, has been slowly and steadily implementing our decision to sacrifice New Orleans for the sake of a navigable channel. This hurricane was just nature doing a little sprint and speeding up the process for a few days.

On the other hand, if we want to have a long-term viable location for a city there, we have to do 2 things:

1) Dynamite all of the levees and channels and lose the navigable connection between Mississippi River shipping and the Gulf of Mexico. (Perhaps offload all of the cargo onto trains or other transport and shuttle it to the sea?)

2) All building in the citys must be built on stilts to allow the Mississippi mud to flow through and continuously lay down silt on top of the ground and underneath the buildings. No roads will be allowed unless they are also suspended. Basically nothing can be in contact with the ground that would impede the flow of silt.

It looks to me like from an ecologic point of view, the only positive thing that has happened to the Mississippi delta in the last 200 years was in 1927 when they dynamited the levees because of the Freat Flood. Of course that wasn't real good for the 2-legged inhabitants, was it...

cathy :-)
9.8.2005 6:33pm
"but my sense is that the flooding resulted primarily from the combination of a) long-term government planning for only a Category 3 Hurricane hitting New Orleans

I would offer that the causal chain extends further than you are allowing. The cause was short-sighted politicians. As a result they spent money on pork projects rather than being prepared for any category of storm.

I think anyone would be hard pressed to argue that had all the pork funding been used then their would have been no flooding. But I think the argument is a marginal one. Each dollar spent on projects unrelated to flooding means one less dollar was spent on a project that may have helped lessen the overall damage.
9.8.2005 7:02pm
Eric Richardson (mail):
It seems that any ACE money spent in Louisiana that wasn't to make the levees around NO stronger is being defined as pork barrel. But (ahem) Clinton was right, local flood protection should be a local issue. The ACE's primary responsibility, IMNSHO, should be to maintain navigability of the entire river, so that interstate commerce can be facilitated. That is a requirement that covers the whole state, indeed the whole Mississippi basin, not just New Orleans. In terms of losses to the country, the loss of New Orleans pales in comparison to loss of the Mississippi waterway to the sea. That should be the ACE's primary focus.
9.8.2005 11:56pm
Lawrence (mail):
One blogger predicted a contractor would be blamed for his levee work. An Army Corps spokesman tried to deflect criticism by stating that two of the breaches occurred where work had been done recently. What are the chances of that contractor in court?
9.9.2005 5:24pm