Report: Corps Blueprint for Coastal Louisiana Falls Short

Mon July 14, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Cain Burdeau - ASSOCIATED PRESS



NEW ORLEANS (AP) The Army Corps of Engineers has fallen short in an effort to come up with a strategy to protect coastal Louisiana from the worst hurricanes, the National Research Council said May 13.

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated Louisiana in 2005, Congress instructed the corps to deliver by mid-2007 an assessment of requirements to protect the state from Category 5 hurricane. Category 5 is the highest measure on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, a catastrophic cyclone with winds in excess of 155 miles per hour and pushing before it a storm surge of more than 18 feet. The corps is behind schedule and its analysis appears to be far from over.

A committee of the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, took the corps to task for the draft corps report issued in March.

Instead of providing a useful roadmap, the corps study lacks clear recommendations and clear cost estimates, the NRC report said.

“Congress and the citizens of Louisiana look to the corps of Engineers” for their expertise, the report said.

“Unless some advice regarding promising initial projects for ecosystem restoration, hurricane protection, and buyouts and relocations is provided,” the report said, “the planning effort will fall short of its potential to offer science-based, analytical advice on hurricane protection and coastal ecosystem restoration.”

To protect coastal Louisiana, the corps is considering traditional hurricane protection structures, like levees and floodgates, and restoring the region’s natural environment.

To understand the risks, the corps has done extensive computer modeling and calculated how proposed levees would fair against hurricane-driven flooding.

But NRC said the corps has failed to factor in uncertainties that must be taken in account by people living along the coast.

The report does offer “the true risk to homes and businesses and people” because it “does not consider the potential for structural failure of levees and floodwalls,” the NRC said.

Levee failures were the primary source of water that flooded 80 percent of New Orleans when Katrina struck in August 2005, and about a month later when Rita came ashore.

As for the natural component, Louisiana has lost about 2,000 sq. mi. (5,200 sq km) of coastal wetlands since the 1930s. The state wants Congress to fund a multibillion-dollar program to save marsh, barrier islands and cypress forests — features scientists consider natural defenses.

The corps report suggests Louisiana can staunch the wetlands loss, but the NRC said the agency did not provide evidence that sea level rise, degradation and subsidence will not turn more wetlands into open water.

If the wetlands cannot be maintained, the NRC said, the report “misleads the public” and casts doubt on any plans based on the existing coastline.

“If wetlands cannot be maintained, decision makers and citizens ultimately will have to make hard choices about where restoration can take place and where it cannot,” the report said.

Besides restoring wetlands and flood protection, the corps is looking at programs to get people to raise their homes and move away from dangerous areas.

But the NRC said more research is needed on who would participate in such programs.

Also, the corps report glossed over the possibility that people would move into dangerous coastal areas if bigger levees are built, the NRC said.

“This phenomenon took place in the decades prior to Hurricane Katrina,” the NRC said. “It is important that a similar process is not repeated in the future.”

Getting the corps to build Category 5 protection is one of Louisiana’s top priorities and coastal residents here see it as the ultimate goal, a lifeline.

In recent months, the prospects of seeing the massive estuary project move forward have brightened since the main presidential contenders — Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain — have expressed interest.

While the Category 5 hurricane study is under way, the corps is spending about $14 billion to upgrade levees in the New Orleans region. Its target for completion is 2011.