Some critics are suggesting President Bush was as least partly responsible for the flooding in New Orleans. In a widely quoted opinion piece, former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal says that “the damage wrought by the hurricane may not entirely be the result of an act of nature,” and cites years of reduced funding for federal flood-control projects around New Orleans.
Our fact-checking confirms that Bush indeed cut funding for projects specifically designed to strengthen levees. Indeed, local officials had been complaining about that for years.
It is not so clear whether the money Bush cut from levee projects would have made any difference, however, and we’re not in a position to judge that. The Army Corps of Engineers – which is under the President’s command and has its own reputation to defend – insists that Katrina was just too strong, and that even if the levee project had been completed it was only designed to withstand a category 3 hurricane.
We suspect this subject will get much more attention in Congress and elsewhere in the coming months. Without blaming or absolving Bush, here are the key facts we’ve been able to establish so far:
Bush Cut Funding
Blumenthal’s much-quoted article in Salon.com carried the headline: “No one can say they didn’t see it coming.” And it said the Bush administration cut flood-control funding “to pay for the Iraq war.”
Blumenthal: With its main levee broken, the evacuated city of New Orleans has become part of the Gulf of Mexico. But the damage wrought by the hurricane may not entirely be the result of an act of nature.
…By 2003 the federal funding for the flood control project essentially dried up as it was drained into the Iraq war. In 2004, the Bush administration cut funding requested by the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 percent. Additional cuts at the beginning of this year…forced the New Orleans district of the Corps to impose a hiring freeze.
We can confirm that funding was cut. The project most closely associated with preventing flooding in New Orleans was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane Protection Project, which was “designed to protect residents between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River levee from surges in Lake Pontchartrain,” according to a fact sheet from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (The fact sheet is dated May 23, long before Katrina). The multi-decade project involved building new levees, enlarging existing levees, and updating other protections like floodwalls. It was scheduled to be completed in 2015.
Over at least the past several budget cycles, the Corps has received substantially less money than it requested for the Lake Pontchartrain project, even though Congress restored much of the money the President cut from the amount the Corps requested.
In fiscal year 2004, the Corps requested $11 million for the project. The President’s budget allocated $3 million, and Congress furnished $5.5 million. Similarly, in fiscal 2005 the Corps requested $22.5 million, which the President cut to $3.9 million in his budget. Congress increased that to $5.5 million. “This was insufficient to fund new construction contracts,” according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ project fact sheet. The Corps reported that “seven new contracts are being delayed due to lack funds” [sic].
The President proposed $3 million for the project in the budget for fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1. “This will be insufficient to fund new construction projects,” the fact sheet stated. It says the Corps “could spend $20 million if funds were provided.” The Corps of Engineers goes on to say:
Army Corps of Engineers, May 23: In Orleans Parish, two major pump stations are threatened by hurricane storm surges. Major contracts need to be awarded to provide fronting protection for them. Also, several levees have settled and need to be raised to provide the design protection. The current funding shortfalls in fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2006 will prevent the Corps from addressing these pressing needs.
The Corps has seen cutbacks beyond those affecting just the Lake Pontchartrain project. The Corps oversees SELA, or the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control project, which Congress authorized after six people died from flooding in May 1995. The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans reported that, overall, the Corps had spent $430 million on flood control and hurricane prevention, with local governments offering more than $50 million toward the project. Nonetheless, “at least $250 million in crucial projects remained,” the newspaper said.
In the past five years, the amount of money spent on all Corps construction projects in the New Orleans district has declined by 44 percent, according to the New Orleans CityBusiness newspaper, from $147 million in 2001 to $82 million in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
A Long History of Complaints
Local officials had long complained that funding for hurricane protection projects was inadequate:
- October 13, 2001: The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that “federal officials are postponing new projects of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Control Program, or SELA, fearing that federal budget constraints and the cost of the war on terrorism may create a financial pinch for the program.” The paper went on to report that “President Bush’s budget proposed $52 million” for SELA in the 2002 fiscal year. The House approved $57 million and the Senate approved $62 million. Still, “the $62 million would be well below the $80 million that corps officials estimate is needed to pay for the next 12 months of construction, as well as design expenses for future projects.”
- April 24, 2004: The Times-Picayune reported that “less money is available to the Army Corps of Engineers to build levees and water projects in the Missisippi River valley this year and next year.” Meanwhile, an engineer who had direct the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study – a study of how to restore coastal wetlands areas in order to provide a bugger from hurricane storm surges – was sent to Iraq “to oversee the restoration of the ‘Garden of Eden’ wetlands at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,” for which President Bush’s 2005 gave $100 million.
- June 8, 2004: Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, told the Times-Picayune:
Walter Maestri: 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. 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.
- September 22, 2004: The Times-Picayune reported that a pilot study on raising the height of the levees surrounding New Orleans had been completed and generated enough information for a second study necessary to estimate the cost of doing so. The Bush administration “ordered the New Orleans district office” of the Army Corps of Engineers “not to begin any new studies, and the 2005 budget no longer includes the needed money.”
- June 6, 2005: The New Orleans CityBusiness newspaper reported that the New Orleans district of the Corps was preparing for a $71.2 million reduction in overall funding for the fiscal year beginning in October. That would have been the largest single-year funding loss ever. They noted that money “was so tight” that “the New Orleans district, which employs 1,300 people, instituted a hiring freeze last month on all positions,” which was “the first of its kind in about 10 years.”
Would Increased Funding Have Prevented Flooding?
Blumenthal implies that increased funding might have helped to prevent the catastrophic flooding that New Orleans now faces. The White House denies that, and the Corps of Engineers says that even the levee project they were working to complete was not designed to withstand a storm of Katrina’s force.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, at a press briefing on September 1, dismissed the idea that the President inadequately funded flood control projects in New Orleans :
McClellan: Flood control has been a priority of this administration from day one. We have dedicated an additional $300 million over the last few years for flood control in New Orleans and the surrounding area. And if you look at the overall funding levels for the Army Corps of Engineers, they have been slightly above $4.5 billion that has been signed by the President.
Q: Local people were asking for more money over the last couple of years. They were quoted in local papers in 2003 and 2004, are saying that they were told by federal officials there wasn’t enough money because it was going to Iraq expenditures.
McClellan: You might want to talk to General Strock, who is the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, because I think he’s talked to some reporters already and talked about some of these issues. I think some people maybe have tried to make a suggestion or imply that certain funding would have prevented the flooding from happening, and he has essentially said there’s been nothing to suggest that whatsoever, and it’s been more of a design issue with the levees.
We asked the Corps about that “design issue.” David Hewitt, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said McClellan was referring to the fact that “the levees were designed for a category 3 hurricane.” He told us that, consequently, “when it became apparent that this was a category 5 hurricane, an evacuation of the city was ordered.” (A category 3 storm has sustained winds of no more than 130 miles per hour, while a category 5 storm has winds exceeding 155 miles per hour. Katrina had winds of 160 mph as it approached shore, but later weakened to winds of 140 mph as it made landfall, making it a strong category 4 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center.)
The levee upgrade project around Lake Pontchartrain was only 60 to 90 percent complete across most areas of New Orleans as of the end of May, according to the Corps’ May 23 fact sheet. Still, even if it had been completed, the project’s goal was protecting New Orleans from storm surges up to “a fast-moving Category 3 hurricane,” according to the fact sheet.
We don’t know whether the levees would have done better had the work been completed. But the Corps says that even a completed levee project wasn’t designed for the storm that actually occurred.
Nobody Anticipated Breach of the Levees?
In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on September 1, President Bush said:
Bush: I don’t think anyone anticipated breach of the levees …Now we’re having to deal with it, and will.
Bush is technically correct that a “breach” wasn’t anticipated by the Corps, but that’s doesn’t mean the flooding wasn’t forseen. It was. But the Corps thought it would happen differently, from water washing over the levees, rather than cutting wide breaks in them.
Greg Breerword, a deputy district engineer for project management with the Army Corps of Engineers, told the New York Times:
Breerword: We knew if it was going to be a Category 5, some levees and some flood walls would be overtopped. We never did think they would actually be breached.
And while Bush is also technically correct that the Corps did not “anticipate” a breach – in the sense that they believed it was a likely event – at least some in the Corps thought a breach was a possibility worth examining.
According to the Times-Picayune, early in Bush’s first term FEMA director Joe Allbaugh ordered a sophisticated computer simulation of what would happen if a category 5 storm hit New Orleans. Joseph Suhayda, an engineer at Louisana State University who worked on the project, described to the newspaper in 2002 what the simulation showed could happen:
Subhayda: Another scenario is that some part of the levee would fail. It’s not something that’s expected. But erosion occurs, and as levees broke, the break will get wider and wider. The water will flow through the city and stop only when it reaches the next higher thing. The most continuous barrier is the south levee, along the river. That’s 25 feet high, so you’ll see the water pile up on the river levee.
Whether or not a “breach” was “anticipated,” the fact is that many individuals have been warning for decades about the threat of flooding that a hurricane could pose to a set below sea level and sandwiched between major waterways. A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report from before September 11, 2001 detailed the three most likely catastrophic disasters that could happen in the United States: a terrorist attack in New York, a strong earthquake in San Francisco, and a hurricane strike in New Orleans. In 2002, New Orleans officials held the simulation of what would happen in a category 5 storm. Walter Maestri, the emergency coordinator of Jefferson Parish in New Orleans , recounted the outcome to PBS’ NOW With Bill Moyers:
Maestri, September 2002: Well, when the exercise was completed it was evidence that we were going to lose a lot of people. We changed the name of the [simulated] storm from Delaney to K-Y-A-G-B… kiss your ass goodbye… because anybody who was here as that category five storm came across… was gone.
– by Matthew Barge
Sidney Blumenthal, “No one can say they didn’t see it coming,” salon.com, 31 August 2005.
Deon Roberts, “Bush budget not expected to diminish New Orleans district’s $65 million,” New Orleans CityBusiness, 07 February 2005.
Manuel Torres, “Flood work to slow down; Corps delays new projects,” Times-Picayune, 13 October 2001.
Mark Schlefistein, “Corps sees its resources siphoned off; Wetlands restoration officials sent to Iraq,” Times-Picayune, 24 April 2004.
“Mark Schleifstein, “Ivan stirs up wave of safety proposals; Hurricane-proofed stadium is one idea,” Times-Picayune, 22 September 2004.
Deon Roberts, “Bush budget not expected to diminish New Orleans district’s $65 million,” New Orleans CityBusiness, 07 February 2005.
Mark Schleifstein, “Bush budget cuts levee, drainage funds; Backlog of contracts waits to be awarded,” Times-Picayune, 08 February 2005.
“Bush budget fails to fund flood control in New Orleans,” New Orleans CityBusiness, 14 February 2005.
Deon Roberts, “ New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faces,” New Orleans CityBusiness, 06 June 2005.
Will Bunch, “Did New Orleans catastrophe have to happen? ‘Times-Picayune’ had repeatedly raised federal spending issues,” Editor & Publisher, 31 August 2005.
Toby Eckert, “Could disaster have been prevented?,” Copley News Service, 02 September 2005
Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker, “ Critics say Bush undercut New Orleans flood control,” Washington Post, 02 September 2005.
“The City in a Bowl,” Transcript, NOW, Public Broadcasting Service, 20 September 2002.
Jon Elliston, “ A Disaster Waiting to Happen,” bestofneworleans.com, 28 September 2004.
Scott Shane and Eric Lipton, “ Government saw flood risk but not levee failure,” New York Times, 02 September 2005.
Paul Krugman, “ A can’t-do government,” New York Times, 02 September 2005.
“Lake Pontchartrain, LA and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project, St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Charles Parishes, LA ,” Project Fact Sheet, US Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District, Web site, 23 May 2005.
“Fiscal Year 2006: Civil Works Budget for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Department of the Army, February 2005.
“Press Briefing by Scott McClellan,” whitehouse.gov, 01 September 2005.
Karen Turni, “Upgrade of levees proposed by corps; gulf outlet levee may be too low, officials worry,” Times-Picayune, 12 November 1998.
John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein, “The big one: A major hurricane could decimate the region, but flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands. It’s just a matter of time,” Times-Picayune, 24 June 2002.