THE BLOG
08/29/2011 09:38 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2011

How Congress Rewarded the Corps of Engineers for Drowning New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina exposed more than 50 incidences of design and construction flaws in the Army Corps of Engineers' levee system in and around New Orleans.

When Congress handed the Corps $15 billion and told the agency to build it right this time, perhaps it was believed that the levee failure and flooding was simply an unavoidable act of nature.

But three subsequent investigations and federal Judge Stanwood Duval all found the Corps responsible for improperly constructing and maintaining the levees. Over time, it has become clear that the flooding in the New Orleans region that many refer to as "Katrina" was actually the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history.

The flooding on August 29, 2005 directly took the lives of over 1,600 people, temporarily or permanently displaced 150,000 families, and destroyed tens of billions of dollars worth of private property and municipal infrastructure.

The need for reform was clear and just one month after that deadly day, Jim Jeffords, I-VT and the members of the minority on the E.P.W. Committee introduced S. 1836, the Gulf Coast Infrastructure Redevelopment and Recovery Act of 2005.

The original legislation contained meaningful reform measures.

Modeled after the Countrywide Dam Safety Program, the act created levee performance requirements, established a National Levee Data Base (NLD) and an inspection process for all of our nation's levees. It contained a Research Program and a Safety Training Program. It created a Levee Safety Committee to work with states "to ensure that levee systems around the nation provide the protection they should."

And a key provision was the establishment of a quasi-independent `National Levee Safety Review Board' appointed by the Secretary of the Army.

A version of this first bill was passed by the Senate as part of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) 2006. Sponsored by John Duncan, R-TN, he and his co-sponsors were very excited about the far reaching implications of the bill.

"I am pleased that the Senate supported changes, like this one, that will go a long way toward renewing the public's trust in the reliability and quality of the work of the Army Corps of Engineers," said Senator Tom Carper, D-DE.

But there were important differences from the reform bill originally envisioned by Jeffords and Co.

In the original legislation, the Review Board had voting members with powers to secure from federal agencies whatever they needed. The secretary also could create stakeholder working groups to assist the Board.

But in this new bill, the Board could not vote, had no powers and there were no provisions for working groups which naturally tapped into those people living behind levees.

And it got much worse.

Less than half the length of the original bill, the final bill passed in WRDA 2007 and sponsored by James Oberstar, D-MN had no Research Program or Safety Training Program.

But most importantly, it had no independent Review Board at all, only a Levee Safety Committee, accountable to the Corps of Engineers.

In the end, Congress handed more responsibility and power over all of our nations' levees, both federal and non-federal to the Army Corps of Engineers, the entity primarily responsible for the drowning of New Orleans.

Giving the Corps more authority over levees after Katrina is like giving BP more authority over deep-sea drilling safety after the 2010 Gulf disaster.

Why should you care? Because the majority of the nation's population lives in counties protected by levees.

It's important to note that this weakening of reform occurred while the residents of greater New Orleans, those most likely to be engaged, were displaced. They were busy dealing with basic needs such as finding housing, earning a living, and if they had children, figuring out where to send them to school.

Meanwhile in 2007, Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain used the New Orleans debacle to defend their calls for reform of the Army Corps of Engineers in two amendments to WRDA. One measure passed in the Senate 54-46 and created an independent panel of scientific and economic experts with the authority to make recommendations on national water projects considered by the Corps. This bill was later weakened significantly. A second measure, intended to create a panel to prioritize projects that protect life and property among competing projects, failed miserably by a vote of 19 to 80. Few senators wanted their pet projects delayed so those projects that save lives could be expedited.

The then-weakened reform measure became so meaningless that a visibly distressed Feingold voted, in principle, against the final bill containing the amendment for which he had previously fought so hard. Congress as a whole appears to dislike independent panels and boards watching over the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, but has been unwilling to provide the proper oversight themselves.

Dr. Robert Bea and Dr. Ray Seed called for reforms in Chapter 13 of their Independent Levee Investigation Team Report on presented May 22, 2006 at the New Orleans Sheraton.

They felt the Corps had too much uncontrolled power and recommended a National Flood Defense Authority to be "instituted and charged with oversight over the construction and maintenance of flood control systems." They also called for a National Disaster Advisory Office in White House and Catastrophic Risk Office in Congress.

In a joint statement this week, Professors Bea and Seed declared that the National Committee on Levee Safety in 2007 passed by the 110th Congress represented "...important, but incomplete, progress with regard to flood safety; leaving much still to be done. Meanwhile, we continue to be a nation at risk."

We cannot just build infrastructure, we also must protect the taxpayers' investments. That is why a truly independent oversight body must be empowered to provide non-biased review of federal infrastructure projects, such as the levees that protect American lives.

On the sixth anniversary of the levee breaches in and around New Orleans, let us hope that Congress will do better to protect Americans whose lives depend on federal levees.

Levees.org was created after Katrina with a mission of education about the greater New Orleans flooding. Their goal is the creation of an independent and bipartisan federal investigation of the 2005 levee system failures.

Co-written by Vince Pasquantonio, Legislative Liaison for Levees.org.