Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Katrina Chronicles - Laying Blame

There are three things you should be hearing about in the wakes of a federal judge’s ruling that much of the devastation of Katrina is the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers. First, you should know that the Corps, for all its earth moving might, is not generally well funded for maintenance of its projects after they are completed. That’s why in almost all cases the projects are turned over to local boards, state commissions, and county public works enterprises. It’s also why a series of dam problems in the Pacific NW had to get to emergency status before they were dealt with. Even the facilities the Corps runs itself – like locks on the Mississippi River – have to steal money from projects elsewhere in the Corps to stay in good working order.

Second, you should be hearing, as we did right after Katrina, about how much (or how little) Congress involved itself in the decisions of the Corps around New Orleans. You see, the Corps budget is the most Congressionally – messed with of any federal executive agency. More useless projects get built nationally because Congress wants to send a few million dollars to members’ districts, then because the Corps is convinced that the specific project is a good idea. Sadly, both the Press and the Courts take a routine pass at this one.

Third, you should be hearing about how marsh restoration (including the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet - MRGO; the subject of the court decision) is vital to protecting New Orleans from this point on. In a state that looses 25 to 45 square miles a year of coast (mostly to a combination of erosion, loss of Mississippi River sediment, and subsidence), no coastal levee system can provide sustained protection that can match a healthy and vibrant salt marsh. Coastal engineers have known this for decades, but we still prefer to build sea walls, levees, groins and jetties instead of planting marsh grass and filling abandoned oil field pipe canals.

You should be hearing about all these things, but I guarantee you won’t. That’s because it’s easy for the media, the plaintiffs, and the courts to fix their sights on the big, bad Corps. The problem is, by ignoring all these other forces, we as a society also get to ignore our responsibility to the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. And that should shame us all.

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