[This was left in a comment by someone named "George Lane". I don't know who he is and what part - if any - of this he wrote. I believe at least part of this is Congressional testimony for something or other. In any case, it's here rather than being a comment.]
Public Policy and Louisiana Levee Boards
December 2, 2005
The Orleans Levee Board was created by the Louisiana legislature in 1890 for the purpose of protecting the City of New Orleans from floods. In 1924, the state legislature authorized the levee district's Board of Commissioners ("the levee board") to acquire 33,000 acres of land on the east bank of the Mississippi River about 50 miles south of New Orleans in order to build the Bohemia Spillway between the River and the Gulf of Mexico.
Approximately half of this land was public property transferred from the state while the other half was either expropriated or purchased under threat of expropriation from private owners according to a legal finding.1
The Orleans Levee Board today is one of many similar governmental levee boards that function independently in and around Louisiana. The function of the Orleans Levee Board is to protect the greater New Orleans area from flooding and to protect and operate equipment placed and assigned for that purpose.
However, the Orleans Levee Board remains an old institution that shuns publicity and openness in a state that has seen its share of corruption. In addition to levee protection, the board has asserted control over such things as casino gambling and municipal recreational marinas.2 In a 2002 lawsuit against the Board, Orleans Levee Board members admitted to raising and spending their own capital funds through businesses they control, including gambling.3
With regard to the levee district's budget, the Orleans Levee District receives very little funding from the state. The levee district generates its own revenues from the Lakefront airport, a casino, leases of property, fees from boat slips and marinas, and taxes and receives income from various investment accounts currently worth $57 million. Because the state funds are already earmarked for other purposes, the state monies cannot be used to pay judgments against the Orleans Levee District.
On Tuesday, August 30, 2005 the Orleans Levee Board was at the center of the greatest crisis ever to face the City of New Orleans when the 17th Street and Industrial Canal Levees failed following Hurricane Katrina. The resulting flood caused numerous deaths and contributed to the emergence of lawlessness, looting and murder within the city of New Orleans.
On October 27, 2005 the head of the Orleans Levee Board quit under pressure amid questions about no-bid contracts to his relatives after Hurricane Katrina. The final days of board president Jim Huey's tenure also were marred by his collection of nearly $100,000 in back pay several weeks before the storm. Under pressure from Governor Blanco, he returned the funds a week later.
The future of the Orleans Levee Board, and the other independent levee boards, was questioned during the special session of the Louisiana Legislature by either abolishing the levee boards or staffing them with apolitical experts in engineering and project management. However, in the crucial battle of a post-hurricane special legislative issues, Louisiana lawmakers voted down an effort to reshape the state's fragmented levee
protection system, which has long been criticized as a bastion of patronage.
The Drowning of New Orleans
At the junction of the Mississippi and the Gulf, New Orleans residents long knew that a powerful hurricane was inevitable. As economic development robbed the region of natural defenses, man's fight to hold back nature would ultimately fail.
Two months before Hurricane Katrina hit, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) gave a chilling preview of its rampage. "This isn't a simulation of World War III, or 'The Day After Tomorrow,' or Atlantis - but one day, it may be Atlantis," Vitter warned at a Congressional hearing. Then he displayed a computer model of a Category 4 hurricane smashing New Orleans and flooding the city under 18 feet of water. 4 "It's not a question of if," Vitter said. "It's a question of when."
New Orleans has always been described as a disaster waiting to happen, a city in a bowl below sea level. Vitter accused the federal government of neglecting the city's man-made and natural protections, by under funded levees that were designed only for a Category 3 storm and stalling a massive plan to restore Louisiana's tattered web of coastal marshes.
Senator Vitter pleaded, "Instead of spending millions now, we are going to spend billions later". But as Vitter was forecasting destruction, he was also holding up legislation that would have approved levee upgrades and launched the coastal restoration plan. And the holdup involved an industry-backed provision that Vitter had inserted to help Louisiana's loggers deforest cypress swamps, which would reduce the natural hurricane defenses the restoration was supposed to rebuild.
The drowning of New Orleans was caused by complex factors of weather, geography, history, politics and engineering; however, it was a tragedy of priorities, not just Senator Vitter's, but America's. For years, it was common knowledge in Louisiana and Washington that New Orleans could be destroyed by a hurricane. But decision makers turned away from the long-term investments that might have averted a catastrophe, pursuing instead projects with more immediate payoffs. Some of those projects made the city more vulnerable.
The story of how New Orleans ended up underwater begins with its founding nearly 300 years ago, at the liquid crossroads of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
But that was precarious geography. A review of several decades of decisions by officials responsible for defending New Orleans, especially the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Congress as well as the Orleans Levee District, shows that the nation's dysfunctional system for selecting, funding and designing water projects helped seal the city's fate.
New Orleans officials often resisted proposals to protect their communities from storms because they did not want to pay their share of federal projects. But it was the Corps and Congress that ultimately had the power and the resources to safeguard New Orleans. The Corps is America's water resources agency; however, it appears that America does not
yet have a water resources policy.
The Corps budget consists almost entirely of "earmarked" projects requested by members of Congress, and its priorities are set almost exclusively by the annual race for appropriations.5 Louisiana's congressional delegation traditionally dominated that race,
but eyes were usually on prizes that had nothing to do with hurricane protection.
Louisiana gets more Corps funding than any other state, but protection against a Category 5 storm was not sought until it was too late. For decades, the Corps has waged an unrelenting war on nature to protect New Orleans from the Mississippi River, but one result has been the destruction of wetlands that helped protect the city from the sea. And
when Corps engineers finally took up hurricane protection in the 1960s after Hurricane Betsy ravaged the City, the Corps designed projects based on economic analyses that did not take into account the cost of human lives, but rather promoted development of low-lying wetland.
By the eve of Katrina's landfall, the city's most vital hurricane project was decades behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, and the Corps's own analysts warned that it might not protect New Orleans from a Category 3 storm. Congress and the Corps were "playing the odds game," as former senator John Breaux (D-La.) put it. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to point fingers, but Breaux said it's unrealistic to expect government officials to focus on events unlikely to occur during their lifetimes.
In New Orleans, the worst-case scenario came true after Katrina churned through the Gulf at Category 4 strength. Its initial surge, amplified by a controversial Corps canal, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO, or "Mr. GO") overwhelmed modest floodwalls on the east side of town, a stone's throw from another controversial Corps navigation project.
A much smaller surge from Lake Pontchartrain on the north end of town poured water into drainage canals, where plans for floodgates had been dropped to save money. The surge buckled Corps floodwalls that were apparently either poorly designed or shoddily constructed. Journalists, scientists, engineers and politicians had predicted this, but no one in power had been determined enough to prevent it.
"We all should have paid more attention to the levees," said lobbyist Robert K. Dawson, a staff director of the US House public works committee in the 1970s and an assistant Army secretary overseeing the Corps in the 1980s. "But I don't recall that any of us really did".
Development of levees in Louisiana
The original settlement of New Orleans was above sea level. The Crescent City's historic French Quarter would remain relatively dry during Katrina. The city was always vulnerable to hurricanes that could roar up the Gulf into nearby lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne, but it had a measure of natural protection, thanks to a buffer of hundreds of square miles of coastal swamps that helped absorb the energy of storm surges before they reached dry land.
But the original French settlers focused their attention on the annual floods of the Mississippi, not the occasional storms from the Gulf. The initial settlers began work on a 3-foot-high, mile-long earthen levee to block overflows from the river, and by 1727, the colonial governor declared New Orleans flood-proof. He was spectacularly wrong.6
For more than a century, landowners on the river built their own levees, which were regularly swept away and rarely replaced. In the mid-1800s, the responsibility for flood-fighting shifted to appointed levee boards with the power to collect taxes and draft slaves, but the unruly river continued to overwhelm their flimsy dikes. New Orleans was earning
a reputation as a vibrant port city, but also as an outpost in a watery wilderness.
In 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission to stop the recalcitrant waterway from mutinying. Mark Twain scoffed that "ten thousand River Commissions, with the minds of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, 'Go here,' or 'Go there.' "7
But Congress also assigned the Army Corps to control the commission.
The engineers of the Corps, whose motto is "Essayons," French for "let us try" , believed they could tell rivers to go where they wanted. Corps engineers did not have much experience with flood control, and some critics urged them to consider reservoirs and floodways to give the Mississippi room to spread out. But the Corps insisted a "levees-only" policy would confine the river for good.
Unfortunately, the more levees constricted the Mississippi, the higher its waters rose, and the resulting levee breaks were more destructive than ever. Corps officials proclaimed the river under control "before the great floods of 1884, 1890, 1891, 1897, 1898 and 1903, and . . . again before 1912, 1913, 1922 and 1927."8
The 1927 flood was the worst until Katrina, killing more than 1,000 people, leaving one million homeless. New Orleans was spared, but only after the city's banking elite persuaded the Corps to dynamite a levee upstream, which virtually destroyed the poorer parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines. New Orleans was never the same after the 1927 catastrophe.9
It remained one of the nation's most important ports, but it began to lose its status as the financial capital of the South, as the region's center of gravity shifted to Atlanta.
The Corps had failed in its mission, but its power over the river only expanded. The agency's commander unveiled a new plan for the Mississippi, featuring reservoirs and spillways as well as higher levees that members of Congress were expected to rubber-stamp just because the Corps wrote the plan. Congress enacted the Mississippi River and
Tributaries Project, one of the most ambitious and expensive federal initiatives ever.10
The federal government would pay the entire cost, a departure from usual requirements for local contributions. The Mississippi's levees would be designed against an 800-year flood. But protection had its price. The armored and constricted Mississippi no longer eroded its banks and rambled across its floodplain, so it no longer carried as much silt to
its delta, and no longer built coastal marshes that helped blunt the impact of hurricanes.
The need for levees
In the 1950s, after a series of storms battered the Atlantic coast, Congress directed the Corps to get serious about hurricanes, and the agency began devising the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection project for New Orleans. Water projects were becoming a form of currency in Congress, a way to steer money to constituents and contributors, and the Corps was becoming a quasi-congressional agency, building the projects desired by its legislative patrons. In different ways, these two projects would help set the stage for Katrina. Initially, the Corps was cool to the Gulf outlet. As late as 1951, according to an official Corps history, "the costs were shown to be high and the benefits . . . speculative." 11
And critics in nearby St. Bernard Parish denounced it as a hurricane highway, a storm-surge shotgun pointed at the city's gut. But the outlet had strong support from Louisiana politicians and powerful shipping interests. Under heavy pressure, the Corps concluded that the project was justified as an economic engine, and Congress approved it in 1956.12
Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), son of the legendary Huey P. Long, immediately called President Lyndon Johnson and invited him to Louisiana. When Johnson offered to send his best man, Long shot back: "We are not the least bit interested in your best man."
Johnson flew down right away. Six weeks later, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1965, authorizing the first federal hurricane protection for the New Orleans area. The Corps settled on 200-year protection from storms, a sharp contrast to the 800-year protection from the river.
The Corps aimed to protect New Orleans from the Gulf with levees much shorter than the river levees, plus two huge floodgates designed to keep storm surges out of the lake.
But the economic rationale for the plan would be derived by reclaiming pristine wetlands at the city's outskirts, extending the levees beyond New Orleans to "hasten urbanization and industrialization of valuable marsh and swampland." 13
A subsequent report would find that only twenty-one (21) percent of the land protected by the Corps project was already developed. The rest was soggy, vacant and well below sea level, just waiting for subdivisions. Katrina would put those lands back underwater.
At one hearing in the late '70s, a freshman Louisiana congressman named Robert Livingston Jr. blistered a Corps colonel for protecting swamps instead of people. "Perhaps I am being a bit too complex," he said. "It would seem to me that if hurricane protection to the people and properties is the paramount importance, the portion you would want to complete first would be those levees surrounding inhabited areas rather than those around uninhabited areas. Would that not be a priority, sir?"14
In 1982, the Orleans Levee District urged the Corps to "lower its design standards to provide more realistic hurricane protection." The Orleans Levee District, stocked with political appointees, could spend freely on private investigators, riverboat gambling and a $2.4 million Mardi Gras fountain. But it said it could not afford its share of protection from a 200-year storm, suggesting that 100-year protection would be fine.
The Orleans Levee Board also opposed a Corps plan for smaller floodgates at the mouths of three drainage canals stretching from Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans, saying they would be too expensive to maintain. So Congress directed the Corps to build taller floodwalls along the canals instead of gates designed to keep water out of the canals. Two of those floodwalls collapsed during Katrina.
New Orleans is surrounded by a river levee system twenty five (25) feet high along its southern boundary, and by hurricane protection levees about fifteen (15) feet high along the remaining boundaries. The levee system in New Orleans is one of the most extensive in the world. Levees are earthen structures, made of clay (sedimentary particles smaller in
diameter than sand and silt), in cross section forming a truncated triangle. The base is commonly 10 times as wide as the height. Floodwalls are concrete and steel walls, built atop a levee, or in place of a levee, often where space is insufficient for a levee's broad base.
When a storm approaches it is responsible for closing the hundreds of hurricane protection floodgates and valves on levees surrounding the city. All residents outside of these levees evacuate. Most of the land in the city is below sea level, with much of the northern half of the city more than 5 feet below sea level. About one half of the population of the city can't and won't evacuate during a hurricane. Many people, about 200,000, do not have automobiles or access to an automobile. There are an additional 20,000 special needs people that cannot be easily moved.
Finally, there several hundred thousand people that will not evacuate because of the difficulty of actually evacuating and finding suitable shelters. The hurricane protection levees surrounding the city are designed to protect the city from a category slow 2 or fast category 3 hurricane. Thus for any slow category 3, or category 4 or 5 hurricanes, the possibility exists for flooding the metropolitan area of New Orleans.
Orleans Levee Board history
The first Orleans Levee Board meeting was held on August 11, 1890 in the Cotton Exchange Building.15 Felix J. Dreyfous was elected as the first president of the board. The term of office was six years. The Board authorized a levy tax of one mil on the dollar on all taxable property in
Orleans Parish. The first year's projected revenue from mileage was estimated to be $131,915.06. The Board's first goal was to strengthen and upgrade the Mississippi River levees at a cost of $88,936.31. Most of the Levee Boards created were financially weak. Many levees were constructed privately to protect plantations and other properties.
During this period, the Board of State Engineers was established and was charged with the responsibility of such public works as building levees, making surveys and preparing reports and specifications. The Board of State Engineers operated until 1940. Meanwhile, levees were being built higher. Gradually, men with shovels were replaced by machines to provide the labor for construction.
Levees were necessary because New Orleans sits like a saucer, rising to heights above sea level at its edges and gradually descending to sea level or below at its midsection. From start to finish, the deepest spot in the Mississippi River is located at New Orleans.
Its depth between Algiers Point and the French Quarter is 191 feet deep. The highest natural ground lies adjacent to the Mississippi River, 14 feet above sea level at Canal Street and the river. The lowest point in the city is located at the intersection of Lake Forest Boulevard and Bullard Avenue in Eastern New Orleans. It is eight feet below sea level. Low elevations have made it necessary to encircle the city with levees averaging 9.5 to 10 feet in height.
Development of the lakefront of New Orleans, operated by the Orleans Levee Board, actually began as a flood control project. Its purpose was to replace the substandard levees and unhealthy conditions occasioned by the marshes with sufficient high land and protective structures to secure the city from another area of flood disasters.
The occurrence of high tide and hurricane winds made it imperative that adequate measures be taken to protect the shoreline and city. The idea of a lakefront development project originated in 1873 when W.H. Bell, city surveyor, formulated a plan that presented the possibilities of combining flood protection with land development.16
The Louisiana Legislature in 1854 divided the state into four districts. Their chief duty was the construction and maintenance of levees, and by 1859 these "levee districts" were switched to a Board of Public Works. Louisiana quickly began moves to take advantage of the new federal agency. The legislature began to create levee boards, gave them power to set and collect taxes, appropriate levee easements and cooperate with the Mississippi River Commission.
Act 93 of the 1890 General Assembly of the State of Louisiana established the Orleans Levee District and the Board of Levee Commissioners. Governor Francis T. Nicholls signed the Act into law on July 7, 1890. The law charged the Levee Board with the "construction, repair, control' and maintenance of all levees in the District, and shall proceed as rapidly as possible to put same in such state as to amply protect the property within the district, by the best methods."
In 1927, unusually heavy rains upriver caused the Mississippi River to rise
dangerously. Greenville, Mississippi was almost wiped out; Little Rock, Arkansas was under water, and breaks were sweeping the flood to New Iberia, Louisiana. New Orleans was panic-stricken, and although every measure was taken to strengthen our levees, the cry "Cut the levee below the city" was heard throughout the Crescent City. To protect the city's population, property and industry from extensive harm, lower St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes were evacuated and the levee was dynamited below New Orleans at Caernarvon. This relieved pressure on the city's levees over the protests of armed trappers and farmers who wished to protect their lands from being inundated.
After the flood of 1927, the United States Government recognized its responsibility for flood control with the 1928 Federal Flood Control Act. The Federal Flood Control Act of 1928 authorized $300 million to begin the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project.
Almost 55 years later, the Legislature authorized the Orleans Levee Board to implement the idea. An amendment to the 1921 Constitution was made by Act 292 of 1928 that empowered the Orleans Levee Board "to perform certain works of reclamation, construction, and improvement" and "authorized the Board to sell, lease, or dispose of land not dedicated to public use."
The New Orleans Lakefront Project reclaimed 2,000 acres of land from the lake, extending for a distance of 5.5 miles. In 1926, the Orleans Levee Board issued $4 million in bonds which made possible the pumping of the first 36 million cubic yards of hydraulic fill, creating new land from marshes and swamps. Completed in 1930, the land fill encompassed the present area between Robert E. Lee Boulevard and the lake from the New Basin Canal to the Industrial Canal. In 1930, a permanent lakefront levee was begun with the construction of 5-1/2 miles of seawall. A concrete, stepped seawall was adopted as the best means of providing the greatest flood protection while deterring the increasing erosion of the shoreline.
The 8-foot high seawall took 2-1/2 years to complete at a cost of $2,640,000. It became the city's frontline protection on Lake Pontchartrain. In 1931, the Orleans Levee Board began construction of Lakefront Airport on 300 acres of reclaimed lake bottom, which was protected by a vertical-type seawall.
In 1951, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the New Orleans Mississippi River Floodwall under the Dumaine Street Wharf. Between 1973 and 1992, 15 major sections were built at a cost of $30 million.
The partnership between the U.S. Government, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the State of Louisiana through the Orleans Levee Board was to provide vital flood protection that runs the entire length of the port of New Orleans.
The Orleans Levee Board, a quasi-governmental body, is responsible for 129 miles of earthen levees, floodwalls, 190 floodgates, 2 flood control structures, and 100 valves. The governor appoints six of the board's eight members, and they serve at his pleasure. When a storm approaches it is responsible for closing the hundreds of hurricane protection floodgates and valves on levees surrounding the city. The Flood Control Act of 1928
legislation authorized the Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) project.
This project oversees four major flood control methods:
3. Tributary Basin Improvements, and
4. Channel Improvement and Stabilization.
After periods of high water, the Mississippi River's channel at many places is too shallow, too narrow, or too difficult for navigation. The New Orleans District has maintained continuous efforts to improve and stabilize the channel by constructing dikes, and dredging; but the levee setback affords only temporary protection against the river.
Once made, it is just a matter of time before the river threatens the relocated levee. To hold the river in the desired alignment and maintain the levee system, its banks are stabilized with revetments. Prior to 1965, New Orleans had suffered substantial losses of protective barrier islands and wetlands and developed an elaborate system of flood control measures. After Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, causing more than $1 billion in damages, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to upgrade the flood control system.
While the new protections did reduce risks to people and property in developed areas, they also encouraged additional development in flood-prone regions. Jefferson Parish and the adjoining Orleans Parish ranked first and second among communities receiving repeat payments for damage claims under the National Flood Insurance Program between 1978 and 1995.18
These two communities alone accounted for 20 percent of the properties with repeat losses, at an average of nearly three claims per property, for a total of $308 million in claims. New Orleans' protective levees are designed to withstand only a moderate (Category 3) hurricane storm surge. The flooding can occur by overtopping of the hurricane protection levees along the lake shore.
Hurricane Levee System
The Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project was authorized by Congress in 1965.19 In late 1966, construction of floodwalls along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal began on east and west sides. This project advanced so well that when Hurricane Camille hit in 1969, New Orleans was protected from similar tides as were produced by Hurricane Betsy. In order to accelerate construction time, the Orleans Levee Board financed and constructed portions of the floodwalls, and in 1973, the project along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal was virtually completed.
Construction on other portions of the project were continuing: the Citrus Back Levee, Michoud Slip Levee, New Orleans East Back Levee, New Orleans East South Point to Gulf Intracoastal Water Ways were constructed and substantially completed by 1977.
First lifts were constructed on the Orleans portion of the Chalmette loop levee in 1970, and the major flood protection structure at Bayou Bienvenue was built in 1974 providing interim protection to New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.
In 1969, the Orleans Levee Board constructed an earthen levee elevated to 12 feet along Lakeshore Drive from West End Boulevard to the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal. In 1981, these levees were raised to an elevation of 16 feet. By 1987, these levees were raised to an elevation of approximately 18 feet, in accordance with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' High Level Plan.
These lakefront levees could protect the city from the fury of the storm. But the crucial points of defense for New Orleans would be the three "outfall" canals at 17th Street, Orleans Avenue, and London Avenue. "Outfall" refers to the role of these canals which is to direct water from the city's pumping stations into Lake Pontchartrain. However,
incoming water driven by a hurricane would raise the water levels in the canals, effectively blocking the flow of water from the canals into the lake. The pumping stations would have to cease operations or risk trapped waters topping the levees and pouring into the city.
Vested with the powers to enlarge and improve flood protection structures, the Orleans Levee Board today has under its jurisdiction a flood protection system including 107 hurricane floodgates, including the Bayou Bienvenue flood control structure, 73 Mississippi River floodgates, 38 hurricane values, 62 Mississippi River valves, and approximately 129 miles of levees.20
Twenty-eight (28) miles of these levees provide protection along the east and west banks of the Mississippi River and the remaining 101 miles protect those areas of the city subject to tidal action and these, for the most part, provide the city's hurricane protection at the present time. The implementation of these hurricane and flood protection projects embodied the Orleans Levee Board's commitment to assure the protection of the City of New Orleans.
Orleans Levee Board financial structure
The Orleans Levee Board's General Fund accounts for all operating funds for the daily operations of the Administrative Offices, Field Forces, Law Enforcement and support operations necessary to maintain the Board's level of services for flood protection and public safety.21 The District's Special Levee Improvement Projects Fund accounts for the capital funds for major maintenance and/or capital improvements of all physical property and plant owned by the Board that is identified as directly related to flood protection. The District's General Improvement Fund accounts for the capital funds for major maintenance or capital improvement of all physical property and plant owned by the Board not identified as directly related to flood protection.
As of July 2005, three (3) Orleans Levee Board projects relate to land reclamation, commercial buildings, improvements, buildings, and infrastructure:22
1. The Orleans Marina currently operates with 355 open slips, 66 boathouses, a Harbor Master Office, as well as related marine amenities. The South Shore Harbor Marina was officially dedicated September 19, 1987. The Marina operates with 447 open slips, 26 cover slips, marina center, fuel dock, and Harbor Master Office as well as related marina amenities.
2. The Belle of Orleans gaming operation is housed at South Shore Harbor and is the principal tenant in the harbor. The annual operations require a subsidy to satisfy the operating shortfall resulting from a substantial debt service requirement on the outstanding Marina Public Improvement bonds.
3. The New Orleans Lakefront Airport commercially operates with 3 fixed base operators, 13 office tenants, and 10 hangar occupants. The annual operations require a subsidy to satisfy the operating short-fall resulting from the labor intensive costs of daily operations of Administration, Fire Safety and Maintenance, as well as the reimbursement to the General Fund for an advance used for the early call of the $4,000,000 Fuel Farm Revenue Bonds.
Ironically enough, an engineering degree, or any type of experience with a levee to is not required to serve on the levee board in New Orleans. The only requirement by law is they "serve at his (the Governor's) pleasure". The Orleans Levee Board (OLB) is primarily composed of business people. Six members are appointed by the Governor and they must be qualified electors of Orleans Parish.
The Mayor of New Orleans or his designee and one other member of New Orleans City Council, appointed by Mayor, serves Ex-Officio on the OLB. OLB is responsible for flood control as well as management of recreational projects on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
While such activities are within its charter, their lack of privatization raise questions about their actions related to levee protection. From its Website OLB, "is dedicated to protecting the lives and property of the citizens of Orleans Parish by constructing, operating and maintaining the Mississippi River and Hurricane Protection Flood Control Systems and to providing safe and secure facilities for aviation, marine and recreational activities."
However, of the eleven (11) current and upcoming Orleans Levee Board construction projects on the OLB website, only two (2) appear related to levee maintenance:
1. 29710 Seabrook Bridge Fender System Improvements Burk-Kleinpeter, Inc. $30.00 Pending Board Approval
2. 61301 South Shore Harbor Marine Fuel Facility Orleans Levee District $15.00 Bids Opened, Under Evaluation
3. 22807 Repair of Flood Gate W-30 (IHNC) Design Engineering, Inc. Bids Opened, Under Evaluation
4. 79906 New Orleans Lakefront Airport Wedell Hangar Lead Abatement and Coating Improvements Shaw-Coastal, Inc. PreBid - May 3, 2:00PM Bid: May 20, 2:00PM
5. 27830 Lakeshore Drive Improvements Plaza - Reach IV and V PreBid - May 4, 2:00PM Bid: May 20, 2:0PM
Upcoming Orleans Levee Board Construction Projects:
1. Project No. Project Expected Advertise Date Budget TBD
2. New Orleans Lakefront Airport Fuel Farm Clean Tanks and Mechanical Improvements July 2005 $125,000
3. TBD Mississippi River Flood Gates Rehabilitation Sept 2005 $100,000
4. TBD New Orleans Lakefront Airport Taxiway Alpha Drainage Improvements Sept 2005 $150,000
5. TBD Orleans Marina Asphalt East Roadway Feb 2006 $75,000
6. TBD New Basin Canal Marina Improvements Feb 2006 $200,000
7. TBD Orleans Marina Repaint Steel Walkways Upper Structure Apr 2006 $300,000
In 2004 the Louisiana State Inspector General accused OLB of "a long-standing and continuing disregard of the public interest" for non-levee projects including: 23
1. The unveiling of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Fountain was celebrated this year in typical New Orleans style. The cost of $2.4 million was paid by the Orleans Levee Board, the state agency whose main job is to protect the levees surrounding New Orleans, the same levees that failed after Katrina hit.
2. OLB spent $15 million spent on two overpasses that helped gamblers get to Bally's riverboat casino. Critics tried and failed to put some of that money into flood protection.
3. OLB also spent $45,000 for private investigators to investigate radio host and board critic Robert Namer. "They hired a private eye for nine months to find something to make me look wacko, to make me look crazy or bad." says Namer. "They couldn't find anything." Namer sued and the board then spent another $45,000 to settle.
4. OLB also owns and runs New Orleans Lakefront Airport. Its webpage boasts "Meeting rooms, free of charge" and "Full course dining with a view of the airfield in the Walnut Room." It also announces, "We have 83 acres of prime airport land available for development."
5. The Levee Board owns and operates the Orleans Marina. As the Orleans Marina website suggests: "Bring your boat and stay with us for your convention, the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, or any special event - or just to have a fling!"
6. In addition, the Levee Board owns and manages South Shore Harbor Marina (SSHM), another yacht basin with 447 open slips and 26 covered slips. "Wednesday nights are Red Beans and Rice nights," according to the SSHM Website.
In its defense, former OLB President Jim Huey told NBC in October: "As far as the overall flood protection system, it's intact. It's there today. It worked. In 239 miles of levees, 152 floodgates, and canals throughout this entire city, there was [sic] only two areas" that failed.24
Unfortunately, these two (2) levee failures were the 17th Street Canal and the Industrial Canal floodwalls, which flooded some eighty (80) percent of Orleans Parish.
Louisiana legislative action
Louisiana's levee system and its two dozen local boards would have fallen under the oversight of a state authority if lawmakers had agreed to a bill pushed by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. The board would have developed a statewide plan merging two related efforts, preserving the state's coastline and protecting its residents from hurricane-related flooding. The authority would have power over local levee districts,
including the ability to intervene in their operations if they do not follow the state plan, according to Scott Angelle, head of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.
Louisiana Senate Bill 71 (SB71), sponsored by Sen. Reggie Dupre (D-Montegut) approved by the Senate 31 to 6 and by 93 to 5 in the House, does not consolidate levee boards. That would be left up to lawmakers. SB71 would start that process by merging the coastal-erosion and flood-protection goals into a single master plan that all parties, including local levee management boards, are supposed to embrace. The legislation was
backed by the insurance and banking industries and the Attorney General's Office, said Scott Angelle, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources. Federal officials have praised the concept behind the legislation, said Sidney Coffee, executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities. The state already has the Wetlands Conservation and
Restoration Authority, which is part of Blanco's office.
Senate Bill (SB) 95, referred to as the "Boasso Bill" would have renamed that the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and would have included representatives of a wide range of levee districts as well as state agency heads, certain lawmakers and others. But the key battle on levees involved a proposal by Sen. Walter Boasso (R-Arabi) to combine several New Orleans area levee boards into a single body. One of the bill's targets was the Orleans Levee Board, which has gained a reputation as a patronage pot as it has expanded its mission from hurricane protection and flood control to running Lakefront Airport and a number of real estate developments. The Senate approved the bill unanimously after changing it so the Orleans Levee Board could preserve its real estate portfolio but surrender its flood-control duties. When the bill reached the House, members took a floor vote delaying Boasso's bill from getting a committee hearing, killing it for the session.
A disagreement rooted in St. Bernard Parish doomed proposals in the Legislature to get rid of parish levee boards in southeastern Louisiana. Boasso's bill proposed the plan to dissolve the levee boards, which are local taxing bodies long criticized as full of patronage but devoid of expertise in the work of levee oversight. Rep. Ken Odinet killed Boasso's bill. Both represent St. Bernard Parish. Boasso's bill was gutted in a Senate committee by Sen. Francis Heitmeyer (D- New Orleans), who has strong political ties to the Orleans Levee Board. Heitmeyer changed the bill so it would prevent the dissolution of that boards, a powerful political force. The Orleans Levee Board has a $47 million annual budget and its own police force. The Board also controls an airport on Lake Ponchartrain that caters to corporate jets.
Rep. Odinet, a member of the House since 1987, killed the Boasso bill not by persuading colleagues to vote against it, but with an obscure parliamentary maneuver on the House floor. Odinet objected to a routine procedure that normally allows a bill to move quickly from the Senate to a House committee. Rep. Odinet got enough fellow House members to agree with his objection, so the bill stalled, without enough time left in the special session to get committee approval, then full House approval. Lawmakers
from both parties said they were concerned that displaced residents from southeastern Louisiana will see the failure of Boasso's plan as a sign that New Orleans and the rest of the nation will remain vulnerable and unsafe because of poor levee oversight and hurricane protection. State Senator Craig Romero (R-New Iberia) said Governor Blanco, a Democrat, declined to get behind Boasso's bill because it would have put her at odds with key Democratic legislative leaders, including some with ties to levee boards.
Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, a native of New Orleans and brother of Louisiana US Senator Mary Landrieu , said the Legislature might have lost momentum by not overhauling flood control more fully. "Reforming the levee board system was the right idea to start this process, and I believe the state missed an opportunity to accomplish this during this special session," Landrieu said.25
Agreeing was Barry Erwin, president of the Council for A Better Louisiana, a not-for-profit organization that tracks issues for members who include some of state's largest banks and law firms. Erwin said lawmakers showed little courage in dealing with the politically well-connected levee boards. "We need to consolidate those levee boards. I understand the politics but sometimes you have to step to the plate," Erwin said.
"Everybody else in the state feels a sense of urgency to do big bold reforms, and the legislators don't feel that yet. That kind of sums up the whole session."
It's hardly uncommon early in a legislative session for lawmakers to be griping and moaning about the lack of communication with or direction from the governor's office, mixed with dire predictions of showdowns and meltdowns. The governor most adept at the care and feeding of legislators was Edwin Edwards, currently in prison after having been convicted of federal racketeering charges.
The US Senate recently approved as part of a budget bill the dedication of $1.2 billion to work on Louisiana's coast and levees by 2010.26 The money would come from the sale of rights to television airwaves as the country moves to digital broadcasting. The House is preparing to take up its own version of a budget with $323 million annually for hurricane protection. But it is unclear whether the House and Senate will even agree to a final budget deal, putting all the financing in jeopardy. House and Senate negotiators agreed to spend $8 million for the Corps of Engineers to develop hurricane protection plans for all of south Louisiana.27
Louisiana's reputation on Capitol Hill was not helped by a November 13 story in Time magazine labeling Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco as one of the worst Governors in the United States for her less-than-dazzling performance before, during, and after Katrina. Also, in the first corruption arrest stemming from the federal money flooding into Louisiana for hurricane cleanup, federal prosecutors on November 17 charged a parish official with taking kickbacks to arrange a debris-removal contract.28 The official, Joseph Impastato of Lacombe, Louisiana, serves on the council of St. Tammany Parish, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
Congress has repeatedly expressed concern that the billions of dollars of federal aid to the Gulf Coast could be subject to waste, fraud and abuse. Hurricane Katrina's devastation has spurred members of Congress to introduce 139 bills. But of the 15 that have made it into law, none provides money for the stronger levees that New Orleans and Louisiana officials say are critical to luring back residents and businesses.
From a review of all of the meeting minutes of the Orleans Levee Board's Finance, and Planning, Engineering and Construction Committee, its mission statement notwithstanding, the Orleans Levee Board's primary function appears to have been to continue doing whatever they want without oversight or coordination with other levee boards. The Orleans Levee Board currently owns property including marinas, an airport,
commercial property and their own police force. The most interesting thing about all these meeting minutes is the almost total lack of discussion of the levee system and how to protect the city in the event of a hurricane or catastrophic flooding.
For decades, the levee board has been widely perceived as a hotbed of political intrigue where waste and mismanagement are commonplace. Former Gov. Mike Foster, frustrated by his inability to end the controversy and focus the agency on flood protection, in 1997 chose a Catholic nun with a law degree and a former Marine Corps major general to sit on the board.
If levee improvement is a side-project for the Orleans Levee Board, to the point that it is not a part of the General Operating Budget, who exactly is focusing on the levees?
In New Orleans, for something as important as the levees, shouldn't there be an organization whose primary function is to maintain, study, and improve the levees? The levee board may have started life with that goal, but they have strayed far from it when it is no longer even part of the General Operating Budget as illustrated in 2001.29 The levee board's assets include millions of dollars worth of real estate, including an airport and marinas, along with valuable commercial rental properties.
When fiscal year 2005 wraps up September 30, the Corps expects to have spent $82 million, a 44.2 percent reduction from 2001 expenditures. Unfunded projects include widening drainage canals, flood- proofing bridges and building pumping stations in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.30
The Corps also wants to build levees in unprotected areas on the West Bank. In fiscal year 2006, the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bracing for a record $71.2 million reduction in federal funding, the largest single-year funding loss ever for the New Orleans district.31
However, the Orleans Levee Board spends what it takes to keep those things going. If their primary goal were to actually fix and upgrade the levees instead of to continue to exist as a bureaucracy, our levees would have been in much better condition in August, 2005. The levees in greater New Orleans failed, thousands of citizens died, tens of thousands are homeless, property damage is in the billions, a great city has been
devastated, and yet the Orleans Parish Levee Board continues to protect the unqualified and the corrupt.
The drowned and near-drowned citizens of this community want radical change and want it now. The Governor should clean house at the Orleans Parish Levee Board and replace its current membership with highly qualified, apolitical experts in project management. The Attorney General should aggressively investigate the prior activities of the Orleans Levee Board.
One reason that Congress shows little interest in providing needed financial assistance to our communities is the perception that our politics are corrupt. In the interest of community safety, Governor Blanco should replace the membership of the Orleans Parish Levee Board with highly qualified, apolitical experts in engineering and project management. Reforming the levee board system will signal Congress and the nation that
the cleanup process has begun.
The Governor and Legislature should support legislation to:
1. Replace the existing multiple-district levee system with a single levee district covering all areas that impact hurricane protection in Greater New Orleans;
2. Grant this body full authority to take all actions needed to protect lives and property from levee failure;
3. Staff the body with commissioners chosen based on their expertise without the appearance of political patronage;
4. Provide independent oversight and public reporting on plans and execution, with input provided by as independent organization, such as the National Academy of Sciences;
5. Promptly divest the Levee Board's interest in projects extraneous to levee construction and maintenance, either by transferring those projects to appropriate state or municipal agencies or by selling them at public auction;
6. Rebuild a reliable and safe regional levee system to a Category 5 protection level;
7. Restore coastal wetlands concurrent with levee restoration project. Levee protection concerns and the restoration of coastal Louisiana wetlands must go hand-in-hand in order to achieve the greatest flood control benefit for the region and to re-establish confidence and assure investment;
8. Develop and improve a regional transportation system that includes inter-city rail, is affordable and accessible, and can be used for evacuation; and
9. Ensure the performance of critical communications, transportation, and energy infrastructure systems during disasters and recovery.
The federal government wrapped levees around greater New Orleans so that the rest of the country could share in Louisiana's bounty. Americans wanted the oil and gas that flow freely off Louisiana's shores. They longed for the oysters and shrimp and flaky Gulf fish that live in abundance in our waters. They wanted to ship corn and soybeans and beets down the Mississippi and through Louisiana ports. They wanted coffee and steel to
flow north through the mouth of the river and into the heartland. They wanted more than that, though. They wanted to share in Louisiana's spirit. They wanted to sample Louisiana's jazz and food. And Louisiana was happy to oblige them. So the federal government built levees and convinced us that Louisiana were safe. Louisiana wasn't.
The levees, we were told by the Corps of Engineers and Orleans Levee District, could stand up to a Category 3 hurricane. They couldn't.
By the time Katrina surged into New Orleans, it had weakened to Category 3. Yet the levee system wasn't as strong as the Army Corps of Engineers and levee boards said it was. Barely anchored in mushy soil, the floodwalls gave way.
The federal government decided long ago to try to tame the river and the swampy land of Louisiana spreading out from it. The country needed this waterlogged land of Louisiana to prosper, so that the nation could prosper even more. Some people in Washington don't seem to remember that. They act as if we are a burden. They act as if we wore our skirts too short and invited trouble. Congress as well the Louisiana legislature must still be reminded that New Orleans is a singular American city, and that this nation still needs what Louisiana and New Orleans can give it.
Adequate levee protection for the New Orleans area doesn't seem too much to ask.
1. Louisiana Act No. 246, 1924.
2. Greenspun, Brian. "Gaming briefs for July 17, 2003", Las Vegas Sun, July 17, 2003, pg A1.
3. United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, No. 01-30728, Anthony L. Vogt, et al. versus Orleans Levee District, June 14, 2002.
4. Grunwald, Michael, "Slow Drowning of New Orleans", Washington Post, October 9, 2005, pg 1-5.
7. Twain, Mark, "Life on the Mississippi", 1883, pg 150.
8. McPhee, John, "Atchafalaya'", New Yorker, February 23, 198, pg 35-40.
10. US Corps of Engineer, "Engineer Update", May 1999, Vol. 23 No. 5.
12. Atlas, Pierre, "Katrina exposes sad truth of America's great divide", IndyStar.com, September 5, 2005.
13. United States Senate Report 107-325 - "A bill to authorize the Project for Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction", October 17, 2002.
14. Gunn, R.L., "Project fact Sheet, Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, Louisiana", US Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, October 1997.
15. Schleifstein, Mark, "In Harm's Way", Times-Picayune, June 23, 2002, pg A2.
16. Parker, Randall, "Southern Louisiana Set Itself Up For Hurricane Katrina Disaster", Parapundit.com, October 15, 2005.
17. Carter, Nicole, "Analyst in Environmental Policy Resources, Science, and Industry Division, CRS Report for Congress", September 6, 2005.
18. FEMA National Flood Insurance Program, www.fema.gov/nfip/10400409.shtm Loss Statistics from Jan 1, 1978 through September 30, 2004.
19. Utt, Ronald, "Army Corps of Engineers", Heritage Foundation, November 4, 2005.
20. Orleans Levee Board Website, www.orleanslevee.com/History1.htm, October 12, 2005.
22. Mital, Ann, GAO Director Natural Resources and Environment, "Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project", Testimony Before the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, GAO-05-1050T, September 28, 2005.
24. Myers, Lisa, "Is the Orleans Levee Board doing its job?, NBC News Investigative Unit, September 14, 2005.
25. Alpert, Bruce, "Category 5 protection support dries up", Times-Picayune, November 10, 2005, pg A1.
27. Ed Anderson, "Senate OKs single levee board; Bill guts authority of most parish panels", Times Picayune, November 18, 2005, pg A2.
28. Leslie Eaton, "Parish Official Charged in Louisiana Storm Case", Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2005, pg 5.
29. Orleans Levee District Estimated Revenues & Expenditures, www.bgr.org/budgets/old/2001/Downloads/operating.budget.xls.
30. Congressional Quarterly Online, February 3, 2004.
31. Roberts, Deon, "Republican Budget Cut New Orleans' Army Corps Of Engineers Funding By A Record $71.2 Million" New Orleans City Business, June 6, 2005.
Orleans Levee District Estimated Revenues & Expenditures (FY 2001)
AD VALOREM TAXES $9,552,881
REVENUE SHARING 1,500,000
INTEREST ON INVESTMENTS 300,000
BOHEMIA RENTS AND ROYALTIES 315,417
OTHER LOCATIONS 29,489
LAKE VISTA COMMUNITY CENTER 303,027
ORLEANS MARINA 1,537,115
SOUTH SHORE HARBOR - RENTALS 1,908,142
SOUTH SHORE HARBOR - GAMING OPERATIONS 3,647,050
NEW ORLEANS LAKEFRONT AIRPORT - RENTAL 1,323,827
NEW ORLEANS LAKEFRONT AIRPORT - FUEL FARM 3,825,000
FEDERAL & STATE GRANTS (RUNWAY) 1,413,972
TRANSFER FROM LEVEE FUND 632,000
TOTAL REVENUES $26,289,420
PERSONAL SERVICES (RELATED BENEFITS 30.85%) $12,025,271
CONTRACTUAL SERVICES 3,290,189
MATERIALS & SUPPLIES 1,100,410
MATERIALS & SUPPLIES - FUEL FARM FUEL 2,975,000
PROFESSIONAL SERVICES 900,000
OTHER CHARGES 39,950
MAJOR MAINTENANCE/CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS (OLD FUNDING) 350,000
MAJOR MAINTENANCE/CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS (GRANT FUNDING) 1,413,972
LEGAL SETTLEMENTS 200,000
DEBT SERVICE - GENERAL OBLIGATION BONDS '73 72,920
DEBT SERVICE - SOUTH SHORE HARBOR BONDS 3,170,858
CONTINGENCY - LEGAL AND/OR EQUIPMENT 250,000
CONTINGENCY - UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION PAYMENTS 9,500
CONTINGENCY - EQUIPMENT PURCHASES 10,000
TOTAL EXPENDITURES $26,288,355
NET OPERATING SURPLUS $1,065