Category 5 hurricane protection plan is delayed again – New orleans

by Mark Schleifstein – The Times-Picayune
Saturday December 06, 2008

A long-delayed Army Corps of Engineers plan for protection against a Category 5 hurricane — a storm as large as or larger than Hurricane Katrina — will be delayed until at least June, and maybe longer, the project’s manager says.

Further, the final document won’t be a plan at all, but rather a menu of about two dozen alternatives for Congress to further study and debate, a recipe for additional delay.

Top Louisiana officials had envisioned the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Study — which the corps should have forwarded to Congress a year ago — as a concrete but flexible action plan that Congress could simply approve and the corps could then build. Instead, it will contain four or five alternative project lists for each of five planning areas along the coast, said Tim Axtman, corps project manager.

The latest delays and the increasingly labyrinthine approval process do not sit well with Louisiana’s two U.S. senators and state officials.

The corps’ delays “represent another stark illustration of the broken bureaucracy that plagues the agency,” said Adam Sharp, spokesman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

“The timetable again runs afoul of the clear congressional directive — passed not once, but twice — that the corps make engineering recommendations irrespective of prevailing policy concerns,” Sharp said. “Congress specifically directed the corps not to run the report through the meat grinder of (the Office of Management and Budget) and other politically motivated offices.”

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he will demand an acceleration of the schedule, noting it will now be at least a year and a half late.

“From what I know of the report, it’s far more general and far vaguer than what we mandated,” and does not fully include the input of state and local officials, as Congress had directed.

Garrett Graves, director of the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, said state officials don’t understand why the corps report is taking so long and has cost more than $23 million, when the state completed its own coastal master plan in 13 months for only about $4 million.

“They still don’t even have a real end in sight and appear to be very much off course,” Graves said.

Winding road to approval

Axtman said the corps’ New Orleans District office plans to complete the study’s main report for transfer to the agency’s Vicksburg division and Washington, D.C., headquarters offices by Dec. 20.

There, the study will be reviewed for policy concerns, a process that also will include the office of the assistant secretary of the Army and possibly the White House. After those recommendations are incorporated, a draft will be delivered to a peer review committee of the National Academy of Sciences in late February or early March.

The report will be released to the public at that stage, he said.

The peer review will take three or four months, followed by a final set of revisions that will again be reviewed by senior Army officials, Axtman said. Only then will the chief officer of the corps recommend approval of the report, followed by approval by the assistant secretary, and delivery of the report to Congress.

That process could last until June or later, Axtman said.

Once the report is complete, the corps will then attempt to identify individual projects that can be built under the congressional authority already granted to existing levee or restoration projects, Axtman said.

For instance, gates or much higher levees could be built in the New Orleans area through post-authorization changes to the existing Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity or West Bank and Vicinity levee construction projects.

Such a strategy could allow the corps to address environmental concerns through supplemental environmental statements, rather than a full environmental study for all projects, he said.

Graves said the state worries that strategy could produce endless delays for projects that beg for swift action to preserve public safety.

“I think it was the intention of Congress that the corps come up with an actionable document: something the corps and Congress could actually act on,” he said.

State wants action

The state would prefer a “programmatic authorization,” where all the projects proposed in the report would be authorized by Congress with approval of the report. The state and the corps, though, would still have to return to Congress for appropriations to build individual projects.

Congress originally ordered the corps to complete the Category 5 study by December 2007, when it appropriated $20 million for the study as part of appropriations bills that provided money for rebuilding levees after Katrina.

The study was to include higher levees and other structures, combined with coastal restoration features designed to reduce surge height and protect the levees, with a goal of protecting the entire Louisiana coastline from “the equivalent of Category 5” storms.

It also was to develop the proposed projects outside the traditional corps approval process for levees and other water projects — meaning the cost of individual projects would not be judged against their value to the national economy.

The study quickly ran into criticism from state and congressional officials in 2006 when the corps announced it would first develop a “risk-informed decision matrix” for determining which projects should be included, rather than the traditional benefit-cost analysis.

Study of individual projects also was delayed until the corps completed a complicated series of studies to determine what type of hurricanes could occur in the Gulf of Mexico and the type of surge they could produce.

That information was needed to determine whether several New Orleans-area proposals — such as the construction of huge gates at the Chef Menteur and Rigolets passes, or the shape of levees along St. Bernard Parish — might actually increase the height of surges on the Mississippi Gulf coast, corps officials said.

‘Billions with a b’

The decision matrix also was used to weigh the value that local residents and special interests place in environmental features, such as the fisheries benefits of restoring wetlands, versus the risk-reduction features of longer and higher levees, Axtman said.

“We’ve used that process to screen down to the most viable proposals, and what we’re finding is that trade-offs do exist,” he said.

In most areas, Axtman said, the risk-reduction benefits of wetlands are not as great as built structures such as higher levees. But in some areas, residents place a higher value on the environmental values of the wetlands.

Protecting the wetlands could result in an increase in what the corps refers to as “residual risk”: the potential for flooding that will remain with lower or fewer levees, he said.

First estimates for projects east of the Mississippi River were about $56 billion, while the highest cost for the area just west of the river, including Jefferson and Lafourche parishes, was estimated at $34 billion.

The selection process already has driven down the expected cost, Axtman said.

“But the potential for those very large ‘billions with a b’ numbers are still there,” he said.

Reducing the cost of structures generally means less protective structures and higher flood risks.

But in some cases, he said, adding lower second lines of defense could result in the same level of risk reduction that much higher structures could produce. For instance, additional levees or gates in front of some of the levees now being built to protect the area from 100-year storms could result in 400-year or 1,000-year protection.

“One thing we do have to address in looking at the cost, informing Congress, is that these plans will take some time to construct,” he said, which means inflation will add to their price tags. “This is not a couple-of-years process. It will be an expensive system with big enlargements that’s going to take 10, 12, 15 years to construct.”

About Sharon Kramer

Hi, I'm an advocate for integrity in health marketing and in the courts.
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