Anatomy of an unnatural disaster

With FEMA gutted for Homeland Security and flood projects delayed for lack of funding, the New Orleans nightmare should surprise no one.

Published September 1, 2005 4:03PM (EDT)

Eric Tolbert, a former top disaster response official in the Bush administration, knew a calamity like Hurricane Katrina would be coming, sooner or later. And he also knew that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he worked until February, was not ready to properly respond. There were too few full-time employees, not enough contracts in place to provide assistance, and a lack of money to do proper pre-planning. The added burden of the war on terror, he says, diverted funds away from FEMA's core mission.

"FEMA had to compete and had to help finance the creation of the Department of Homeland Security," Tolbert, who now works for PBS&J, a private contractor, said Thursday morning. "They were taking chunks of money out of the budget. We always referred to it as taxes."

Last summer, for instance, Tolbert said FEMA staged a "tabletop exercise" in Baton Rouge, La., to gauge how well it would respond if a Category 3 hurricane hit New Orleans. Officials learned a lot from the role-play, says Tolbert, and then returned to their offices to create a new plan to respond to an actual disaster in the region. "Unfortunately, we were not able to finish the plan," Tolbert said. The funding for it ran out.

FEMA is not the only agency that found itself bled of required funding by White House decisions after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Shortly after the attacks, the Army Corps of Engineers found itself facing deep cuts in funding for the largest flood control and drainage program in the New Orleans area. In the first full budget year after the attacks, the Bush administration funded the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA, at only 20 percent of the Corps' request of $100 million. In fiscal year 2004, the White House funding came in at 17 percent of the request.

For each of these years, Congress, with the support of the Louisiana delegation, appropriated more money, but funding still came in far below the requirements. Work was delayed. Contractors worked without pay. Whole projects were put off. Local project managers complained that New Orleans was competing with the war in Iraq for funding. "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle Homeland Security and the war in Iraq," Walter Maestri, the emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, told the Times-Picayune in 2004. Of the $500 million requested for levees, pumping stations and new drainage canals between 2001 and 2005, only $249 million passed out of Congress. As recently as March, the Corps warned in a briefing memo that the funding shortfalls "will significantly increase the cost of the project, delay project completion and delay project benefits."

"If the Army Corps capabilities for the SELA program had been fully funded, there is no question that Jefferson Parish and New Orleans would be in a much better position to remove the water on the streets once the pumps start working," says Hunter Johnston, a lobbyist for Johnston and Associates who worked to secure the money.

It is too early to tell, however, whether the additional funding would have prevented the levee breaches and overruns that have flooded New Orleans. Scientists, journalists and public officials have been warning for decades that New Orleans could not withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Even SELA, which was started in the mid-1990s after flooding caused billions in damage, was designed to protect against smaller storms, though planners said it would reduce damages of "larger events."

"If you had engineered everything in America for a Category 5 hurricane, you could not have built anything," said Jimmy Hayes, a former Republican congressman from Louisiana, who now lobbies for federal funding. "There is never enough money."

According to Michael Zumstein, a Corps official working to drain New Orleans, both of the major levee breaches in New Orleans were caused by more water than the Corps' current plans, even if funded, could handle. "It's just the law of physics, that's all," he said, noting that the system was designed to withhold a slow-moving Category 2 or a fast-moving Category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 4 storm when it hit land Monday morning. He said an unexpected break at the 17th Street Canal occurred 700 feet south of a bridge where the Corps recently completed a troubled construction project.

Flooding also occurred on the east side of New Orleans, in the St. Bernard Parish, an area that environmentalists have long warned would be susceptible to flooding because of a poorly designed canal built in the 1960s that joins the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. Since 1998, local politicians have been demanding that the so-called Mississippi River Gulf Outlet be closed, in part because it was allowing saltwater to destroy marshland, increasing the danger of a storm surge. Both the Clinton and the Bush administrations have been slow to respond to those demands, and earlier this week, the storm surge topped levees, flooding the parish, said Zumstein.

The same concerns have been voiced to justify more spending to restore Louisiana's coastline, which has been sinking into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of one football field every half hour. "Something needed to be done to protect the Louisiana coast for an eventuality not unlike this," says Chris Paolino, a spokesman for Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La. "For the most part, it has been an unheeded cry by Louisiana." As recently as June, the Bush administration told the Senate that it opposed a provision in the energy bill that gave Gulf states about $1 billion to shore up their coastal protections, including possible levee and pump work. Despite the objections, Congress kept the provision in the final bill, but the money won't begin to arrive in states like Louisiana and Mississippi until 2008.

The scale of such funding is almost laughable now, considering the scope of the devastation in southern Louisiana and Mississippi. Politicians and lobbyists are just beginning to turn their attention to the massive cleanup and reconstruction bill, which will likely take years and cost tens of billions of dollars. But observers like Tolbert hope that the nation's leaders learn some lessons from the experience.

The blame, he says, lies not with the local and federal officials who warned for decades of the coming disaster. It lies with those elected officials who refused to sign the checks. "The country deserves better than that," he says.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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