(by Jeff Johnson, Sept. 7, 2005, CNSNews.com) – The Bush administration is being widely criticized for the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina and the allegedly inadequate protection for “the big one” that residents had long feared would hit New Orleans. But research into more than ten years of reporting on hurricane and flood damage mitigation efforts in and around New Orleans indicates that local and state officials did not use federal money that was available for levee improvements or coastal reinforcement and often did not secure local matching funds that would have generated even more federal funding.
In December of 1995, the Orleans Levee Board, the local government entity that oversees the levees and floodgates designed to protect New Orleans and the surrounding areas from rising waters, bragged in a supplement to the Times-Picayune newspaper about federal money received to protect the region from hurricanes.
“In the past four years, the Orleans Levee Board has built up its arsenal. The additional defenses are so critical that Levee Commissioners marched into Congress and brought back almost $60 million to help pay for protection,” the pamphlet declared. “The most ambitious flood-fighting plan in generations was drafted. An unprecedented $140 million building campaign launched 41 projects.”
The levee board promised Times-Picayune readers that the “few manageable gaps” in the walls protecting the city from Mother Nature’s waters “will be sealed within four years (1999) completing our circle of protection.”
But less than a year later, that same levee board was denied the authority to refinance its debts. Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle “repeatedly faulted the Levee Board for the way it awards contracts, spends money and ignores public bid laws,” according to the Times-Picayune. The newspaper quoted Kyle as saying that the board was near bankruptcy and should not be allowed to refinance any bonds, or issue new ones, until it submitted an acceptable plan to achieve solvency.
Blocked from financing the local portion of the flood fighting efforts, the levee board was unable to spend the federal matching funds that had been designated for the project.
By 1998, Louisiana’s state government had a $2 billion construction budget, but less than one tenth of one percent of that — $1.98 million — was dedicated to levee improvements in the New Orleans area. State appropriators were able to find $22 million that year to renovate a new home for the Louisiana Supreme Court and $35 million for one phase of an expansion to the New Orleans convention center.
The following year, the state legislature did appropriate $49.5 million for levee improvements, but the proposed spending had to be allocated by the State Bond Commission before the projects could receive financing. The commission placed the levee improvements in the “Priority 5” category, among the projects least likely to receive full or immediate funding.
The Orleans Levee Board was also forced to defer $3.7 million in capital improvement projects in its 2001 budget after residents of the area rejected a proposed tax increase to fund its expanding operations. Long term deferments to nearly 60 projects, based on the revenue shortfall, totaled $47 million worth of work, including projects to shore up the floodwalls.
No new state money had been allocated to the area’s hurricane protection projects as of October of 2002, leaving the available 65 percent federal matching funds for such construction untouched.
“The problem is money is real tight in Baton Rouge right now,” state Sen. Francis Heitmeier (D-Algiers) told the Times-Picayune. “We have to do with what we can get.”
Louisiana Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennen told local officials that, if they reduced their requests for state funding in other, less critical areas, they would have a better chance of getting the requested funds for levee improvements. The newspaper reported that in 2000 and 2001, “the Bond Commission has approved or pledged millions of dollars for projects in Jefferson Parish, including construction of the Tournament Players Club golf course near Westwego, the relocation of Hickory Avenue in Jefferson (Parish) and historic district development in Westwego.”
There is no record of such discretionary funding requests being reduced or withdrawn, but in October of 2003, nearby St. Charles Parish did receive a federal grant for $475,000 to build bike paths on top of its levees.
Earlier this year, the levee board did complete a $2.5 million restoration project. After months of delays, officials rolled away fencing to reveal the restored 1962 Mardi Gras fountain in a four-acre park featuring a new 600-foot plaza between famous Lakeshore Drive and the sea wall.
Financing for the renovation came from a property tax passed by New Orleans voters in 1983. The tax, which generates more than $6 million each year for the levee board, is dedicated to capital projects. Levee board officials defended more than $600,000 in cost overruns for the Mardi Gras fountain project, according to the Times-Picayune, “citing their responsibility to maintain the vast green space they have jurisdiction over along the lakefront.”
Democrats blame Bush administration
Congressional Democrats have been quick to blame the White House for poor preparation and then a weak response related to Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, joined two of his colleagues from the Transportation and Infrastructure and Homeland Security committees Tuesday in a letter requesting hearings into what the trio called a “woefully inadequate” federal response.
“Hurricane Katrina was an unstoppable force of nature,” Waxman wrote along with Reps. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). “But it is plain that the federal government could have done more, sooner, to respond to the immediate survival needs of the residents of Louisiana and Mississippi.
“In fact, different choices for funding and planning to protect New Orleans may even have mitigated the flooding of the city,” the Democrats added.
But Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) suggested that Waxman “overlooks many other questions that need to be asked, and prematurely faults the federal government for all governmental shortcomings; in fact, local and state government failures are not mentioned at all in [Waxman’s] letter.”
Davis wrote that Waxman’s questions about issues such as the lack of federal plans for evacuating residents without access to vehicles and the alleged failure of the Department of Homeland Security to ensure basic communications capacity for first responders might “prematurely paint the picture that these are solely, or even primarily, federal government responsibilities.
“This is not the time to attack or defend government entities for political purposes. Rather, this is a time to do the oversight we’re charged with doing,” Davis continued. “Our Committee will aggressively investigate what went wrong and what went right. We’ll do it by the book, and let the chips fall where they may.”
The House Government Reform Committee will begin hearings on federal disaster preparations and the response to Hurricane Katrina the week of Sept. 12. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is schedule to hold hearings on the economic recovery from Katrina beginning Wednesday morning.
Reprinted here with permission from CNSNews.com. Visit the website at www.cnsnews.com.
1. Define “matching funds” as used in the article, para. 1 & 6. (Go to google and type in “define matching funds”)
2. How did Jeff Johnson discover that New Orleans local and state officials did not use federal money that was available for levee improvements?
3. What is the Orleans Levee Board? What did the Orleans Levee Board publicize in 1995 in the local Times-Picayune newspaper regarding improving the levees?
4. How much money did the Orleans Levee Board receive from the federal government for levee improvement according to their announcement in the Times-Picayune? By what year did the Board promise the gaps in the walls would be completely sealed?
5. Why didn’t the levee board spend the federal matching funds that they had received? Why was the levee board denied the authority to refinance its debts? What do you conclude about the levee board?
6. What was the total Louisiana state government budget for construction by 1998? What portion of that money was designated for levee improvements? List some of the other improvements (including the costs) that the state government made at that time. (para. 7)
7. Why didn’t New Orleans receive the $49.5 million for levee improvements that had been allocated by the State Bond Commission? (para. 8)
8. What types of projects in New Orleans were funded because of a city request by: the state in 2000 and 2001 (para. 12), the federal government in 2003 (para. 13) and city of New Orleans in 2005 (para. 14 & 15).
9. What can you conclude about the local and state government’s performance in maintaining and strengthening the levee system?
What can you further conclude about the importance of a good local government? (Some would say this is why we need the federal government to control such matters. Do you agree? Explain your answer.)
10. Both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representative have committees. Go to the Senate’s website for an explanation of the purpose of committees. What is the purpose of the committee system?
Democrat leaders on the House Government Reform Committee, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Homeland Security Committee are requesting hearings into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as funding to protect New Orleans. Are their requests legitimate? Explain your answer.
11. Go to the House’s website. What is the purpose of the House Government Reform Committee?
How has Republican Tom Davis, Chairman of the committee responded to the requests of his Democrat colleagues? Do you agree with his response? Explain your answer.