Make Levees, Not War


Make Levees, Not War: That’s the most popular slogan among several Katrina T-shirts seen around New Orleans. Without stronger, reinforced levees, everyone in New Orleans agrees, the recovery is doomed. So many breathed a sigh of relief on December 15 when President Bush met with Mayor Ray Nagin to pledge $1.5 billion to the $1.6 billion already in the Army Corps’ budget, doubling the current allocation for flood protection in Louisiana. “It is time to come home,” Nagin said in celebration.

The numbers are big and hard to parse. The promised $3.1 billion is enough to cover the Army Corps of Engineers’ estimated costs to rebuild the levee system to “true Category 3 protection”—that is, as strong as it was supposed to have been before Hurricane Katrina, with luck minus the shoddiness or possible design flaws that tests and probes are currently looking for—by June 1, the start of the next hurricane season.

The $3.1 billion is about one-tenth of $32 billion, the most commonly cited estimate over the next 10 years for the highest level of hurricane protection, Category 5. A Category 5 system has yet to be designed but would include higher levees, new drainage canals and pumps, wetlands restoration, and even a giant set of sea gates far out at the entry of the Gulf of Mexico.

According to this 2003 article from Civil Engineering Magazine , “any concerted effort to protect the city from a storm of category 4 or 5 will probably take 30 years to complete. And the feasibility study alone for such an effort will cost as much as $8 million” and take about six years to complete.

It is worth noting, as well, that the $1.5 billion Bush pledged for New Orleans levees yesterday was part of $62 billion that Congress already approved for hurricane relief, only $24 billion of which has been spent by FEMA.

Whether the Gulf region gets to see the rest of that money will depend in the short term on the fate of a bill by Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, which allocates $34 billion of it to homeowners, businesses, schools, and local governments in the region. Cochran just happens to be the chair of the Senate appropriations committee, and he is going against the president on this one—Bush wants to spend half as much. The Sun Herald, in South Mississippi, quoted Senator Bill Frist on Thursday as saying he expects this plan or one like it to pass in the next 48 hours.

Archive Highlights