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Katrina Floods a ’Whodunit?’ One Year Later

Mon August 28, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Allen G. Breed - ASSOCIATED PRESS



NEW ORLEANS (AP) In many ways, New Orleans is a huge crime scene, with bodies and victims and fingerprints — many, many sets of fingerprints.

But who did it?

Who is responsible for this mess, for a barely functioning city with large swaths still uninhabited — or uninhabitable — a year after Hurricane Katrina?

An anonymous critic, posting his verdict at the edge of the French Quarter, blames the Army Corps of Engineers and its failure to build levees that could keep the floodwaters out: “Hold the Corps Accountable,” demands the sign.

Others curse the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — for its failure to rescue New Orleans as the waters rose, or in the months after. In ravaged Lakeview, a makeshift gallows bears a sign that reads: “Last Resort Shelter. Reserved for Looters/FEMA Reps/Adjusters.”

But the roll of those accused of failing New Orleans is a long one: State and local officials who had no good plan for the disaster, and now preside over a languid recovery. A president who at first seemed remote from the cataclysm, and then made promises that have not been fully realized.

So many did not live up to their responsibilities, says G. Paul Kemp, a Louisiana State University engineer and member of Team Louisiana, a group of forensic engineers examining how the flooding occurred. Every time anyone points that out, “people say, ’Oh, we don’t want to play the blame game. We’ve got to get things moving.’”

But things are moving agonizingly slow. Piles of debris and wrecked cars are everywhere, and astonishingly, searchers were still finding bodies in ruined homes just weeks ago.

Harried recovery officials say it’s only been a year. How much can you expect?

But to Lakeview resident Pascal Warner — who walks through clouds of mosquitoes attracted by a neighbor’s fetid, sludge-covered swimming pool still filled with stagnant Katrina floodwater — a year seems like a pretty long time.

“I wouldn’t want to spend a year in jail,” the retired stagehand says. “Would you?”

• • •

Why did New Orleans go under?

You could blame the French, for locating the city in the middle of a swamp. You could blame generations of local and federal leaders whose decisions to channel and tame the Mississippi starved the delta of silt and caused the land to sink. You could fault the shipping interests who lobbied for the river outlet that gave Katrina’s storm surge a clear path to the city’s front door.

Or, like Warner and others, you could blame the Corps of Engineers and the levees they were charged with building and maintaining.

“It wasn’t Mother Nature,” says Warner, whose home was about a dozen blocks from a break in the 17th Street Canal levee. “If it wouldn’t have been for the break in the levee, we could have come home the next day and cleaned up the yard … and gone right on living.”

Forensic engineers have since uncovered design and construction flaws that some say border on criminal negligence.

Investigators say many levee sections along the city’s drainage canals were built of weak, unstable soils, which apparently were scoured away by the water pressing in from Lake Pontchartrain.

Dan Hitchings, who is overseeing the flood-control repairs as director of the Corps’ Task Force Hope, says the question of liability for damage from the collapsed floodwalls is still open. But the Corps must accept responsibility “for sections of this project that failed before we had intended it to.”

“It’s not anything that anyone in the Corps of Engineers feels good about, believe me.”

But the tide unleashed by the levees did not have to reach a city that was unprepared.

“Louisiana had been on notice of its vulnerability to catastrophic hurricanes for decades, but over the long term had never fully upgraded its emergency response systems to the level necessary to protect its citizens from those events,” according to a report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

FEMA, too, was “unprepared for a catastrophic event” on this scale, the committee said.

And the suffering that resulted is unforgettable.

As President Bush slapped FEMA chief Michael Brown on the back — praising him for “a heck of a job” — people lay dying in the heat and filth outside the New Orleans convention center. The sick and elderly sweltered in crippled hospitals while ice- and water-laden tractor-trailers circled the country, awaiting orders of where to go.

Brown resigned in disgrace. But Kemp notes that, to a large extent, “We’re still dealing with the same people who gave us Katrina.”

“I guess probably in the old Stalinist regime, everybody would have been sacked and sent to Siberia,” Kemp says. “But we don’t do that.”

And so thousands of people in and around the city are still awaiting delivery of government trailers, or for workers to install services at mobile homes already in place.

When FEMA isn’t moving too slowly, it is criticized for moving too fast. The agency rushed to get $2,000 debit cards into the hands of evacuees in the storm’s immediate aftermath, only to be accused in a government audit of giving as much as $1.4 billion to people who spent their disaster relief on champagne, sports tickets, pornography — even a sex-change operation.

Other government audits found that the government wasted millions of dollars in the contracts it issued in the days after the hurricane struck.

Wrangling among Mayor Ray Nagin and members of the City Council over which areas of the city should be given resources to rebuild has stalled the adoption of a unified redevelopment plan, leaving homeowners in many wrecked neighborhoods in limbo, unable to plan for the future.

When the Broadmoor Improvement Association recently released its 319-page neighborhood redevelopment plan, revitalization committee co-chairman Hal Roark said most of the work was “definitely happening in spite of the government. It’s individuals taking their destiny into their own hands, and neighborhoods.”

Patricia Jones says it’s no wonder the companies that provide services have been unwilling to reinvest in the Lower Ninth.

With approximately half the neighborhood still under a “look and leave” policy, residents have been unable to return and do basic salvage work on their houses, says Jones, who represents the Lower Ninth in the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association. It seems to her that the neighborhood has been just about written off.

But services are little better in other, less-destitute sections of the city.

The city is losing approximately 70 million gal. of water a day to leaks, almost as much water as is making it to homes. Water pressure is so bad in parts of the city that officials have helicopters on standby to haul lake water to douse fires.

Before Katrina, garbage was collected twice a week. Now, the trucks come weekly, if that.

The pungent smell of moldy, rotting garbage wafts through the front door of the house Robert Devine is rehabilitating for his brother-in-law in the largely middle class, mixed-race neighborhood of Gentilly. He says the pile across the street — 4 ft. high and 12 ft. long — had been there for about a month.

“Sometimes they’ll pick it up, sometimes they won’t,” says Devine, adjusting a cap bearing the slogan “Git R Done.” “But they want you to pay for it at the end of the month.”

The mayor says his city has done all it could to stave off bankruptcy. At a recent neighborhood meeting in Broadmoor, he made several sarcastic jabs at Washington for not providing more help.

“The only thing we’ve got as a city to continue to operate is a $150-million loan from the federal government,” said Nagin. “They normally give other cities grants, but we got a loan. We’re special.”

Reed Kroloff, who resigned in disgust as head of the urban planning committee for the city’s Bring New Orleans Back initiative, says inefficiency, political jockeying and downright incompetence on many fronts have delayed the recovery process by a year or more.

“This has been a process where everyone, almost every agency involved has to accept part of the blame,” says Kroloff, dean of Tulane University’s architecture school. “There’s been a failure in leadership at all levels here.”

The people in charge say whatever happened, happened. They say they’re moving forward.

FEMA has provided housing assistance to more than 900,000 people across the region, more than 300 times its normal yearly workload. The agency has overseen the removal of 45 million cu. yds. of debris from the state — enough to fill 10 Superdomes, or enough trucks to stretch end to end across the country four times.

Judy Martinez, who oversees debris removal and other public assistance projects in Louisiana for FEMA, says those numbers are “nothing to sneeze at.”

“I think that we’re moving full steam ahead,” she says. “We’re working six days a week, 10, 12 hours a day … and we have been doing this since day one.”

Gil Jamieson, FEMA’s deputy director of Gulf Coast recovery, says he’s attended town and neighborhood meetings where the agency gets blamed for leaking water pipes or stinking sewer lines — things for which it cannot possibly be responsible. If one of FEMA’s new roles is as a target at which people can vent their frustrations, he says, so be it.

“FEMA did get off to a slow start down here, so it’s not surprising that there’s some fundamental mistrust,” he says. “I’m not on a crusade to tell them that we’re not responsible for it. Our actions will show our commitment to this problem.”

There are other signs of progress. At the Superdome, symbol of some of the deepest suffering in the days after Katrina, workers recently finished restoring the stadium’s gleaming-white 9.7-acre roof. And at the restored convention center, which had become a festering cattle car of despair, the only smell of urine is in the bathrooms.

But the people of New Orleans have seen far too much bungling to be entirely hopeful.

While working to restore his 1920s-era home in Broadmoor, out-of-work mechanical engineer Matt McBride has been keeping a wary eye on the flood gates the Corps has been installing on the outfall canals.

The canals were built to drain rainwater from the city and into Lake Pontchartrain. But while the gates should keep storm surge out, the Corps has not installed enough pumps to empty the city in a major rainfall. At the 17th Street Canal gate, there is currently only 10 percent of pre-storm pumping capacity.

The Corps acknowledges that there is decreased pumping capacity and says it is working as fast as it can to improve it.

But based on his own examinations of the Corps’ paperwork, and visits to the stations, McBride considers 60 percent of the city’s pumping capacity unreliable. He says delays in finishing paperwork, failure to bid out work that was already funded, and the refusal to even acknowledge that some pumps need repair have set the city up for major flooding in a tropical storm, never mind another Katrina.

“For them to have abandoned the city like this is unconscionable, immoral and reprehensible — and possibly criminal, frankly,” says McBride, who now regrets the money he’s spent restoring his home. “It’s a death trap.”

Others say all the investment in New Orleans will be for naught if more is not done — and quickly — to restore the city’s natural defenses.

In a single day, New Orleans lost wetlands that were expected to last another 50 years. Despite studies that show that every three to four miles of wetland that a storm surge crosses reduces its elevation by 1 ft., Congress has yet to earmark a single dollar for wetlands restoration, complains environmental advocate David Helvarg.

“The lessons that seem to be learned are how to do better evacuations, not how to prevent the need for the evacuations,” says Helvarg, president of the Blue Frontier Campaign.

“The floods ain’t going away. They’re just going to intensify. But the present policy seems to be designed to create a Third World in this country … that’s never fully able to recover from the last series of storms before the new ones come in.”

All together, the refrain is clear: The culprits who brought New Orleans to this sorry state are still not doing enough to reclaim its future.

“Cities come and cities go, there is no doubt about it,” says Kroloff, the dean of Tulane’s architecture school. “History demonstrates that over and over again. Amazing cities of the past that had huge influence over the way we live don’t exist any more. Ultimately, that could be the fate that befalls New Orleans.

“But it’s not necessary now.”