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The blame game

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By Michelle Malkin  •  September 2, 2005 08:00 AM

Thanks again to all who participated in the Katrina Blog for Relief event, which N.Z. Bear says will now be extended into a Blog Relief Weekend–ending on Labor Day. Look for more info on how N.Z. and Hugh Hewitt are refining the framework to better match donors and charities with specific needs in Hugh’s latest Daily Standard.com column. Very latest private giving estimate from Chuck Simmins is more than $100 million. Keep it going.

Unfortunately, while Americans from all walks of life have been busy raising money, the unhinged Left keeps slinging bull.

Brian Maloney at The Radio Equalizer, my indefatigable blog investigative partner, spotlights the hurricane-induced insanity of Air America Radio hosts Rachel Maddow and Randi Rhodes, who really have bigger things to worry about. (Audio of Rhodes here.) Jim Hoft comments.

This nutball refuses to support Katrina victims because of his anti-conservative hang-ups. (Hat tip: Erick at Red State.)

This group is totally bonkers.

Arthur Chrenkoff compiles a list of left-wingers using the disaster to stoke Bush hatred and eco-zealotry.

Patrick Ruffini documents a “hurricane of hatred.” Alenda Lux has a reality check.

Kevin Halpern has more on the Bush-bashers and adds:

One more thing on anti-war mom Sheehan. She is leaving Texas and taking her protest on the road with a bus caravan to Washington. I hope she runs out of the gas she is wasting.

Politburo Diktat documents Left vs. Right bloggers on Katrina. So does Rick Moran.

And via Radioblogger Duane Patterson, Hugh Hewitt’s producer, here’s the anti-Bush meltdown of CNN buffoon Jack Cafferty. More from Brent Baker at Newsbusters.

Cafferty is fuming because Bush did not drop sandwiches into the waterlogged, chaos-racked Superdome. I kid you not.

The Anchoress takes stock of the political and physical landscape 100 hours after stormfall. Read the whole thing.

***

While the above examples of Bush Derangement Sydrome are beyond the pale, there are serious criticisms to be made of President Bush–and government officials from both parties and all levels, for that matter.

The Bush Administration has come under particularly fierce criticism for its decision to scrimp on anti-flood measures in New Orleans–a decision some claim was prompted by budgetary pressures caused by the war in Iraq:

Federal flood control spending for southeastern Louisiana has been chopped from $69 million in 2001 to $36.5 million in 2005, according to budget documents. Federal hurricane protection for the Lake Pontchartrain vicinity in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget dropped from $14.25 million in 2002 to $5.7 million this year. Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu requested $27 million this year.

Both the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper and a local business magazine reported that the effects of the budget cuts at the Army Corps of Engineers were severe.

In 2004, the Corps essentially stopped major work on the now-breached levee system that had protected New Orleans from flooding. It was the first such stoppage in 37 years, the Times-Picayune reported.

It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay,” Jefferson Parish emergency management chief Walter Maestri told the newspaper. “Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”

Naturally, Bush’s critics want to make this into a major issue in the run-up to the 2006 mid-term elections next fall. But the reality is more complex than the Bush Blamers will admit. They want you to believe that inadequate flood-control protections became a problem only after Bush took office. However, the New Orleans Times-Picayune has written numerous articles over the years describing the threat posed by inadequate funding for flood-control measures. Many of these articles, such as the one authored by Pam Louwagie on June 1, 1999 (see extended entry), appeared well before President Bush took office.

The Times-Picayune’s articles make clear that throughout much of the 1990s, officials in Louisiana couldn’t come up with state money needed to match federal funds. The resignation of Rep. Bob Livingston in December 1998 didn’t help. (Livingston was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; federal funding for flood control projects was one of his pet projects.) Nor did environmental laws, such as the Migratory Bird Act of 1918. (Construction on a hurricane protection levee in St. Charles Parish was halted for months because a great egret nesting area sat in the levee’s path.)

One of Bush’s critics cited a February 16, 2004, New Orleans CityBusiness article. That critic, however, chose not to excerpt these two sentences:

The Corps’ New Orleans district in 2003 spent about $409 million on construction contracts, dredging and maintenance for the state’s waterways, real estate purchases, private sector design contracts and in-house expenditures, according to the Corps. That more than doubles the $200 million the district spent in 1991.

Presumably those sentences were omitted because they do not support the notion that the Army Corps of Engineeers in New Orleans was starved for funds.

And don’t expect Bush’s critics to mention that the main levee that was breached earlier this week had recently been upgraded. Per the New York Times:

No one expected that weak spot to be on a canal that, if anything, had received more attention and shoring up than many other spots in the region. It did not have broad berms, but it did have strong concrete walls.

Shea Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans, said that was particularly surprising because the break was “along a section that was just upgraded.”

“It did not have an earthen levee,” Dr. Penland said. “It had a vertical concrete wall several feel thick.”

The Chicago Tribune makes the same point in even stronger terms:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday that a lack of funding for hurricane-protection projects around New Orleans did not contribute to the disastrous flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

In a telephone interview with reporters, corps officials said that although portions of the flood-protection levees remain incomplete, the levees near Lake Pontchartrain that gave way–inundating much of the city–were completed and in good condition before the hurricane.

However, they noted that the levees were designed for a Category 3 hurricane and couldn’t handle the ferocious winds and raging waters from Hurricane Katrina, which was a Category 4 storm when it hit the coastline. The decision to build levees for a Category 3 hurricane was made decades ago based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Read the whole thing.

It’s worth noting, too, that Democrats not from Louisiana have not always been enthusiastic supporters of New Orleans’ anti-flood efforts. The Clinton Administration held up a major New Orleans levee construction project in 1995, according to a June 23, 1995, article in the Times-Picayune (via EU Rota):

A hurricane project, approved and financed since 1965, to protect more than 140,000 West Bank residents east of the Harvey Canal is in jeopardy.

The Clinton administration is holding back a Corps of Engineers report recommending that the $120 million project proceed. Unless that report is forwarded to the Office of Management and Budget, Congress cannot authorize money for the project, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s office said Thursday.

Without the improvements – a flood gate in the Harvey Canal and raised levees along the Intracoastal Waterway – a tidal surge produced by a hurricane “could result in the catastrophic loss of life and property damage,” corps officials reported. In a worst-case-scenario storm, 82 percent of the buildings east of the Harvey Canal, from The Point in Algiers to the Algiers Lock in the Industrial Canal, would be flooded, causing $2.2 billion in damage, according to corps estimates.

Gerald Spohrer, executive director of the West Jefferson Levee District, is seething. “The bureaucracy in Washington has been given a specific instruction and the way they are dealing with it is to do nothing,” he said.

If financed by Congress, the project could be started early next year, Spohrer said. Work on the Westwego to Harvey Canal Project hurricane levee, costing $90 million, is 30 percent complete, and plans are about to be drawn for the $20 million Lake Cataouatche Project, which would protect the area west of Westwego….

That project is not the only West Bank flood-control work in jeopardy. Federal budget cuts also may prevent construction of levees outside the main hurricane levee system that would protect the Jean Lafitte-Barataria area. Those levees, to cost $5 million, would not protect the area from severe hurricane surges, but could offer protection against a storm such as Hurricane Juan, which while weak, had heavy rains that caused massive flooding.

EU Rota has more examples of Clinton-era obstructionism here.
(Maybe this explains why Clinton took the high road yesterday and refused to trash Bush on CNN.)

It wasn’t only in Louisiana that the Clinton Administration opposed flood control measures. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Clinton vetoed legislation designed to prevent flooding on the Missouri River. According to Michael Catanzaro, the veto stemmed from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to manipulate the Missouri’s water levels to save three endangered species. The veto, a significant campaign issue, was a factor in Bush’s narrow win over Al Gore in Missouri.

If the Missouri river floods, will that be Bush’s fault too?

***

Related:

Pattishub: “This too is Bush’s fault

Captain Ed:

The power of Category 5 hurricanes have been known since Galveston in 1900, and certainly snce Hurricane Camille in 1969. Given New Orleans’ fairly unique situation, the result of a direct Cat-4 or -5 hit has always been presumed to carry the inevitable result of levee failure. If we want to play the blame-Bush game, we can also play the blame-Nixon, blame-Ford, blame-Carter, blame-Reagan, blame-Bush 41, and blame-Clinton game, especially after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.


EYE OF THE STORM; LEVEE-BUILDING DELAYS LEAVE WEST BANK VUNERABLE

By Pam Louwagie, West Bank bureau
New Orleans Times Picayune

June 1, 1999

For a while, it seemed to the hundreds of people frantically sandbagging along the Harvey Canal that they were trying to stop Niagara Falls.

Workers trained in hurricane emergencies, volunteers and even prisoners hurriedly hoisted bags through the night last Sept. 11, rushing to stop the ocean from flowing over makeshift levees and into West Bank houses.

It wasn’t even a full-fledged hurricane they were battling: It was Tropical Storm Frances, a weather system centered at least 350 miles away with winds that mostly stayed below 55 miles per hour.

Few knew that it came within six inches of destroying much of the West Bank.

If storm surges had risen six inches more, Jefferson Parish officials said, the water would have turned to gushing streams that couldn’t have been held back. Much of the West Bank — especially east of the Harvey Canal — would have been deluged, sinking entire neighborhoods such as the 800 palatial homes in Stonebridge under nine feet of water. Officials estimate 250,000 people in West Jefferson and Algiers, 70,000 structures and $6 billion in property were threatened.

“We couldn’t surmount that,” West Jefferson Levee District executive director Gerald Spohrer said, sighing. “The entire Gulf of Mexico was rising on us.”

The West Bank is the most highly populated area in metropolitan New Orleans that still lacks substantial hurricane protection. While a major hurricane certainly would devastate West Jefferson and the rest of the area, the West Bank’s levees aren’t even high enough to shield the area — or its major evacuation route — from a tropical storm like Frances.

It’s a problem that isn’t surprising to those who have followed the politics behind building levees. It’s still years away from fixing, though. While one portion of the project is under construction and a commitment for federal money was authorized three years ago, it requires the state to ante up $49.5 million in matching money to complete the entire project.

If that money doesn’t come, it could slow or eventually stop the levee building altogether.

In recent years, however, there was no major push for state money because lawmakers simply didn’t realize the urgency to build levees — until Frances, officials say. This year legislators are confronted with the issue, and they know that. Even if the money starts coming in right away, construction would run five or six years before all West Bank neighborhoods are protected.

Meanwhile, experts are expecting one of the busiest cycles for hurricanes in years.

“We’re playing Russian Roulette with a lot of people’s lives over here,” former levee district head Ron Besson said. “Six more inches and it would have been all over with. All over with.”

HIDDEN STRENGTH

While the force of Hurricane Betsy or Camille would wreak havoc on the entire metropolitan area, storms like Frances pose a different danger. It isn’t the intensity that’s troubling, it’s the endurance.

Much as Hurricane Juan did in 1985, Frances lingered in the Gulf of Mexico for days, its grand spans of winds nudging ocean waves through the marshes and swamps near Barataria Bay and up through open waterways toward suburbia.

Along the industrious Harvey Canal, water began to top short makeshift levees that businesses had built over the years.

“I wouldn’t even call them levees,” district board president Harry “Chip” Cahill III said. “It’s just a system of elevations, some less successful than others.”

So when water began to find every gap and dip in the system, it was time to call out the emergency troops. All told, more than 70 parish employees and 100 prisoners brought in from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel stacked sandbags along the canal, while another 20 volunteers filled bags for the parish elsewhere.

“We were ready to pull the triggers, ready to order massive evacuations of subdivisions,” Jefferson Parish Emergency Management director Walter Maestri said. “Sometimes it comes down to life versus property.”

And while it was a lot of life and property, some residents, such as those along Lake Frances Drive in Stonebridge, didn’t know how close their street name came to reality.

“It’s scary,” resident Russ Bailey said. “If it comes up the right way, we’re in trouble.”

Many breathed a sigh of relief after Frances dissipated. But the danger exposed during Juan and Frances has not gone away.

Hurricane expert William Gray, of Colorodo State University, predicts a 92 percent chance that at least one named storm will make landfall this year somewhere between the Florida panhandle and Galveston, Texas. There’s a 72 percent chance that a Category 1 or 2 hurricane will hit in the same area; a 40 percent chance that a Category 3, 4 or 5 will make landfall in that zone.

Overall, hurricane seasons are likely to be busier the next few years, Gray found. La Nina and other climactic factors lead experts to predict the cycle of intense hurricane years is kicking up again, similar to seasons when hurricanes roared through from the late 1920 to the late 1960s. The past four years — the most active four consecutive years on record — may be a good indication of what’s to come.

BEHIND EVERYONE ELSE

For many New Orleans area parishes, the rush to build hurricane levees began after Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, killing more than 70, injuring 17,600 and leaving 60,000 homeless. Tales of such massive flooding that families drowned in their attics set everyone on alert.

It was then that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got into the hurricane protection business, helping build levees throughout the New Orleans area to save the below-sea-level bowl from future flooding.

Most area districts have nearly completed their projects.

The east bank of Orleans Parish is about 95 percent protected for a fast-moving Category 3 hurricane, Chief Engineer Stevan Spencer said. Several bridges need replacing but sandbags can do the trick, he said. Orleans is responsible for protecting Algiers, too, and is working with West Jefferson’s levee district to gain protection from Harvey Canal problems.

East Jefferson is about 90 percent complete in protecting up to a Category 3 hurricane, Levee District director Alan Francingues said. Just an Airline Drive gap needs to be addressed, a few gates need replacing and small sections of earthen levees need to be raised a foot or two.

Levees would probably not save the area if a catastrophic hurricane moves in slowly, officials warn, because the storm surge would be too great, and the rainfall would fill up the city.

St. Charles Parish is in more of a precarious position, 30 percent complete with its single levee protecting the east bank from flooding to its north. Its west bank is also unprotected because for years federal officials found there wasn’t enough development there to warrant expensive levees. The project is now stalled because of fights over where to build the levee.

In Jefferson Parish, no major construction began on the West Bank until Congress approved a project to protect the middle third of the West Bank in 1986. While most around the area have met their goal of protection to a Category 3 hurricane, much of the West Bank isn’t even protected to a Category 1.

The West Bank remains the “heart of the need for hurricane protection,” said John Hall, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“You have almost the entire West Bank of Jefferson Parish with no hurricane protection,” Jefferson Parish Councilman Donald Jones said. “That is a travesty.”

Levees need to be various heights depending on where they are located, but officials aim to build levees on the West Bank to about 10 1/2 feet for a Category 3 hurricane.

“We’re not protected until everybody is protected,” said Spencer, who lives in Stonebridge. “You’ve gotta put the whole system together, because if you just build one part, water will find a way around it.”

Some say the West Bank didn’t get as much attention after Betsy because it was less populated in 1965, and therefore less of a concern. Census statistics from 1960 show a population of only 75,819 on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish.

Priority was also put on protecting areas directly abutting large bodies of water such as Lake Pontchartrain.

Others blame the decades-long delay on an argument pitting developers and the parish against environmentalists and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over where to build the levee in undeveloped areas. Some wanted to include more wetlands inwide the levee, while others feared that would just cause the wetlands to be destroyed by more development.

Hurricane Juan 20 years later provided the real push. A slow-moving, Category 1, its southerly winds pushed the Gulf onto the West Bank, flooding much of the area and causing $1 billion in damage in Louisiana.

After Juan, there was more of an urgency to settle the debate.

Environmentalists and the Corps compromised, following an existing levee much of the way, shaped in a V crossing the Lafitte-Larose Highway.

Complete protection on the West Bank will come when a project totalling about $294 million is finished.

* Work to protect the middle one-third of the West Bank is almost completed, with levees nearing 10 1/2 feet from Westwego to the Harvey Canal. While the levees are built to protect the area up to a slow-moving Category 3, the area is still in danger of water seeping in on its east or west sides, where protection is not complete.

* The western one-third, called the Lake Cataouatche levee, has some protection for fast moving storms, with old state-built levees ranging in size from 5 1/2 to 14 feet, Spohrer said. While officials have said it may protect for a fast-moving Category 2 storm, levees were almost topped during Tropical Storm Frances. Congress authorized $14.3 million in 1996, Army Corps of Engineers officials said. Work on this portion is expected to begin this fall. Completion would help protect the evacuation route of U.S. 90, parts of which stood under water during Frances.

* The eastern one-third, including Algiers, is considered wholly unprotected. Levees need to be raised along the Intracoastal Waterway and a floodgate needs to be erected in the Harvey Canal to protect tidal surge from flowing up the canal and spilling into neighborhoods east of it. Congress also authorized $126 million, Corps officials said. It requires local matching funds to move forward.

WHO’S TO BLAME?

To those who knew about the tidal surge problem, Frances provided such a scare that Jefferson Parish administrators, councilmen and state legislators have publicly touted West Bank hurricane protection as their number one priority this year.

But it shouldn’t have taken a threat like Frances to get the call for levees rolling, critics say; The levee district could have given the project a push long ago.

“Those people out there are just lacking the ability to get anything done,” Jefferson Parish Councilman Lloyd Giardina said of levee district officials. “They need to bite the bullet and find the money rather than try to get it from a fictitious place. You’ve got to go lobby everybody rather than find somebody else to get it for you.”

Infighting and assertions of wrongdoing have been a part of the levee board politics since it split off from the Lafourche Levee District around 1980.

Besson was removed from his board president job in 1990 after the state inspector general found he wrongly billed taxpayers for meals and hotel rooms for himself and others. He also was criticized for, among other things, allowing the levee board to donate property and services to agencies and for failing to keep board committee meetings open to the public.

Most recently, board member Rita “Pepper” Scheffler has been causing waves, criticizing board members for failing to hold committee meetings and saying administrators are spending too much on computers and other administrative costs.

“We’re a glorified grass-cutting district,” Scheffler said. “There’s a lot of apathy on the board. They rubber-stamp everything the administration wants.”

Some parish council members were so frustrated after Frances that they suggested Jefferson Parish take over the levee districts to see that improvements were made.

“I promise you we would accelerate the process 10 times if we had control,” Giardina said, adding that levee district members should do much more lobbying to find money.

Cahill said he goes to Baton Rouge to lobby at least once a week during the legislative session.

FIGHT FOR MONEY

The West Bank may have a good case for building levees, but officials will have to fight for money — against other projects in the capital budget and possibly against other levee districts looking to upgrade their levees.

Though Congress authorized West Jefferson to complete its levee projects in 1996, the state hasn’t made matching money a priority the past three years because the weather “really didn’t show us the potential dangers we had until the storms last year … showed the seriousness of it,” said Rep. John Alario, D-Westwego.

As of last week, state matching money for the levees was written into the capital outlay bill. Some consider it a major breakthrough, saying it has never been actually written into bill before.

But even if it passes, it doesn’t mean the money will come.

“It’s going to take a great deal of effort from (Jefferson Parish President Tim) Coulon and local business leaders to convince the governor that it’s a much-needed priority,” Alario said. “I think we’re still at the starting stages. We still don’t have the commitments we need to have.”

Alario, who is head of the Ways and Means Committee and a member of the joint committee on capital outlay, is considered a key himself, officials say. Legislators have only about $200 million in capital outlay to dish statewide each year. This year, the levee district and its Department of Transportation and Development sponsor is competing with countless others requesting capital outlay money in a 117-page bill. Major competition includes a $40.4 million request over several years to build a Comite River Diversion Canal in East Baton Rouge Parish and well more than $300 million in classroom and building renovations for various colleges the next few years.

In an attempt to ease the burden on state capital outlay funding, Alario also filed a bill asking Jefferson Parish council members to donate their discretionary funding from gaming revenues. But parish council members say the state and the West Jefferson Levee District have an agreement with the federal government to build the levees, so it’s the state’s sole responsibility to find the cash.

Without state matching money, Louisiana risks losing federal dollars committed to the West Bank levee projects. While Congress approved the project, it has to appropriate funding for it year by year. So far, the federal government has spent about $44.7 million, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers said. The remaining $147 million it has agreed to spend could be cut off if there is no local money to match it, they said.

Some say the levee district should take the issue the issue to the voters. “After they’ve exhausted all avenues, isn’t it their responsibility to get all the facts and figures together and go to the voters?” Besson asked.

The district has the legal power to pass a referendum and collect taxes, but it hasn’t used it. For now, it collects only a 5-mill ad valorem tax that the state constitution has set up for all levee districts.

“That’s something we would only do as a last resort,” Cahill said. “And I don’t know that we’ll need it. This is the first time all the money is written into a bill.”

Legislators agree it’s been a tough fight so far.

“I think the governor and the administration are completely oblivious to the 250,000 people who live on the West Bank, as far as levees go,” Giardina said. “This is one of the most populous areas in the state and we’re not getting any money.”

If the state money comes through this year, it would take until 2018 to finish completely. Beneficial completion would take five to six years.

“If the dollars stretch out, the life of the project will stretch out,” Spohrer said.

And so will the danger.

“The potential problems are not gonna go away for a while, even if the budget’s approved and we’re all congratulating each other,” Maestri said. “For the next 8 to 10 years, everybody’s got to be alerted.”

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