TOPICS > Politics

Levee Repair Costs Could Reach $6 Billion

April 7, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

BENNY ROUSSELLE, President, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana: This is Plaquemines Parish Medical Center, opening soon. This is a drugstore on the other side. As, you can see they are reframing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Every Sunday morning, Plaquemines Parish President Benny Rousselle drives his pickup truck through the parish to survey the cleanup since Hurricane Katrina.

BENNY ROUSSELLE: How are you all?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, Mr. Benny. How you doing?

BENNY ROUSSELLE: I’m fine. How are you all?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This area about 20 miles southeast of New Orleans was once home to 28,000 people. Today, only about half that number have returned. But, until recently, Rousselle thought things were looking up.

BENNY ROUSSELLE: You see the Cajun kitchen here?


BENNY ROUSSELLE: They’re trying to get open and running. So, we are making a lot of progress on the effort to — to — to clean up.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For months now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been promising it would repair the levees to the way they were before Katrina by the beginning of hurricane season, June 1.

For the people who live and work in this sparsely populated, narrow wetlands area, that was good news. Most of Plaquemines Parish is below sea level, with the Mississippi River on one side, the Gulf of Mexico on the other.

You can’t live here without levees. Houses back up to them. Children play beneath them. In this part of Louisiana, levees are part of the way of life.

So, it came as a shock last week, when the president’s coordinator for Gulf Coast recovery, Donald Powell, said the Army Corps of Engineers needs an additional $6 billion, more than two times the amount of money it has already been given by Congress, to make the levees strong enough to meet the standards of the federal flood insurance program.

Another government agency, FEMA, runs the only program for Americans needing flood insurance. It tightened the standards for coverage after Katrina. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was quick to react.

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), Louisiana: This is a monumental miscalculation. And it’s is really an outrage, because we would have been working on trying to get this money put into levee restoration, if we had had — if we had had this information earlier.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The news came just four months after Powell made this promise at the White House.

DONALD POWELL, Federal Coordinator, Gulf Coast Rebuilding: The levee system will be better and stronger than it ever has been in the history of New Orleans.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Louisiana’s Republican senator, David Vitter, said he was stunned by the Corps’ sudden request for more money.

SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), Louisiana: That’s one of the frustrating things about this surprise. It was out of the blue, as far as virtually everybody is concerned. And that is not the way to build confidence and build consensus and build support here on Capitol Hill.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Powell says he doesn’t know how much money the president will ask the Congress to give the Corps, but insists the administration will not abandon Louisiana.

DONALD POWELL: The president has been committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast from day one. It’s important to understand that his commitment is — it remains in effect. We will — we — the numbers that were released last week were preliminary estimates, and some of those numbers will go up. Some of them may go down.

And, as you know it, this is a complex, comprehensive issue, but we’re committed to the safety of — of the good folks in Louisiana.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Corps says it needs more money because new data shows hurricanes are getting more frequent and more intense, that the coastal areas are eroding faster than expected, and New Orleans is sinking.

ROY DOKKA, Geologist, Louisiana State University: This map shows through colors the different elevations in — in the New Orleans area.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some of that new data on sinking came from Louisiana State geologist Roy Dokka.

ROY DOKKA: Sinking has lowered the land. But the levees sit on top of the land, and, so, they’re going down, too. So, when they built the levees to give a certain level of protection back 40 years ago, the levees are now lower. And, so, they don’t give the same protection.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The levees being repaired by the Corps were designed to protect against a weak Category 3 hurricane, producing winds of about 100 miles an hour.

And after months of promising the repairs would stand up to that level of threat, Corps officials are now retreating.

Dan Hitchings heads the Corps’ Katrina recovery effort in New Orleans.

DAN HITCHINGS, Army Corps Of Engineers: It’s very difficult to say whether or not it will be safe against any particular category of storm, because the storms are all so unique. They come from a different direction.

You know, the wind speed, it’s — it’s a pretty broad band for a Category 3. And these are designed really for a low — very low-level Category 3, a high-level Category 2. So, I mean, the — the levees will be safe, as long as the surge doesn’t come over the top of them. And — and that — you know, that’s the issue.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what happens if you don’t get this money?

DAN HITCHINGS: Well, basically, you know, we will rebuild the protection to its authorized level. That’s what it was when it was originally built, before it settled.

And then FEMA will issue flood insurance maps that will reflect an elevation of the base flood, which will be above the levees. So, essentially, it will be like — for insurance purposes, it will be like there’s no protection in those areas.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Like the levees don’t exist?

DAN HITCHINGS: That’s correct.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Corps says, the Lower Ninth Ward, Saint Bernard Parish, New Orleans East and Plaquemines Parish will need the most amount of money to meet the new federal flood insurance standards.

WALTER BOASSO (R), Louisiana State Senator: See, this is the way we do it down in the bayou, you know?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The large extended Boasso family of Saint Bernard Parish was confused and angry with the situation when they got together recently for a crawfish and crab boil. Everyone here lost their homes to Katrina. They all want to rebuild, but, without flood insurance, it might be impossible.

WALTER BOASSO: That’s the sign of a good cook.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And among the Boasso clan, no one is more upset than State Senator Walter Boasso, who represents both Plaquemines and Saint Bernard Parish.

WALTER BOASSO: No flood insurance, that means you can’t get a mortgage. You can’t get a mortgage, you can’t get a house. And, so, in essence, you wind up with nothing at the end of the day. And that’s where people would have to pack up and move on.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Danny Freeman (ph) is especially worried. Until Katrina destroyed his grocery store last year, the family had been in business since 1939. Now he’s trying to survive by running a shoestring operation out of a trailer in Port Sulfur and hoping to rebuild.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was no question that we would want to have flood insurance, you know?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How crucial is it for you as a businessman?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we have to have it. I don’t think we could rebuild without it.

ROSE WISE, Resident Of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana: Ten zero eight.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rose Wise has worked for Freeman (ph) for 34 years. She wants the federal government to spend whatever it takes to make her safe.

ROSE WISE: I’m a working person. I have worked all my adult life. I have paid all my taxes. So, why can’t you save us? I’m waiting for them to fix the levees. I want to live here. I want to live here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But saving Plaquemines comes with a big price tag, about $3 billion for a sparsely populated area. Or to put it another way, that’s about $190,000 in levee protection for each person who lives there.

Bill Niskanen, chairman of a conservative think tank, says it’s a mistake for the federal government to allocate the additional levee money.

BILL NISKANEN, Chairman, CATO Institute: It includes providing flood protections to one county in the New Orleans metropolitan area that includes only 1 percent of the population. And I’m guessing that the state of Louisiana would make that decision. They would not spend $3 billion to protect the — that 1 percent or so of the metropolitan area population that lives in that county.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Plaquemines Parish may not look like much — mile after mile of low-lying wetlands, protected on two sides by huge earthen levees — but the area is home to one-quarter of the country’s oil and gas supplies. Major oil and gas refineries are also located here.

And Senator Boasso says, if they aren’t protected, it would have national implications.

WALTER BOASSO: I would love to see what this country’s going to do without four oil refineries. Imagine what that price of gasoline’s going to be, because, if they don’t take care of this area, you’re going to see the cost of gasoline go through the roof.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The southeastern Louisiana coast also supplies 25 percent of the nation’s seafood.

KATHLEEN BLANCO: We stand united today.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The governor, other top state political leaders, and Plaquemines Parish President Rousselle have been in Washington, lobbying the White House for more levee money.

And, this week, there was more bad news for the Corps, when one of its leaders admitted, for the first time, that design flaws could have been responsible for one of the levee breaches that flooded New Orleans.