Sunday, September 04, 2005

FactCheck: Is Bush to Blame for New Orleans Flooding?

FactCheck has a piece on whether or not the policies of George Bush are to blame for the flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit.

The summary goes as follows:
Some critics are suggesting President Bush was as least partly responsible for the flooding in New Orleans. In a widely quoted opinion piece, former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal says that "the damage wrought by the hurricane may not entirely be the result of an act of nature," and cites years of reduced funding for federal flood-control projects around New Orleans.

Our fact-checking confirms that Bush indeed cut funding for projects specifically designed to strengthen levees. Indeed, local officials had been complaining about that for years.

It is not so clear whether the money Bush cut from levee projects would have made any difference, however, and we're not in a position to judge that. The Army Corps of Engineers – which is under the President's command and has its own reputation to defend – insists that Katrina was just too strong, and that even if the levee project had been completed it was only designed to withstand a category 3 hurricane.
The article goes into some depth about exactly how much money was cut from federal projects that would have built up the levees, as well as the trail of concerns and complaints.

The two more interesting sections are the ones that address two important questions: would additional funding have prevented the breaches, and were breaches in the levees anticipated.

To the first question, both sides of the debate are indicating pretty entirely black-and-white answers. The anti-admin crowd is saying if the projects had not been cut, the levees would have held - and of course, the White House denies that. Press Secretary Scott McClellan indicated that increased funding to the projects wouldn't have prevented the flooding - instead, the problem lay with a "design issue" in the levees themselves.
[FactCheck] asked the [Army] Corps [of Engineers] about that "“design issue."” David Hewitt, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said McClellan was referring to the fact that "“the levees were designed for a category 3 hurricane." He told us that, consequently, "when it became apparent that this was a category 5 hurricane, an evacuation of the city was ordered."

... We don't know whether the levees would have done better had the work been completed. But the Corps says that even a completed levee project wasn't designed for the storm that actually occurred.
The obvious question in my mind is, why would you design a levee project in hurricane central to only withstand a category 3 hurricane, when scientists have been saying for awhile now that stronger hurricanes are coming. It seems it comes down to a matter of "statistics" - the chances of a big storm wreaking havoc versus being willing to pay for it.

This decision ties into the second question of whether or not breaches in the levees were anticipated.
Whether or not a "breach" was "anticipated," the fact is that many individuals have been warning for decades about the threat of flooding that a hurricane could pose to a set below sea level and sandwiched between major waterways. A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report from before September 11, 2001 detailed the three most likely catastrophic disasters that could happen in the United States: a terrorist attack in New York, a strong earthquake in San Francisco, and a hurricane strike in New Orleans.
Suppose instead that the levees had been built up to withstand category 5 storms - now you could ask, would a breach had been anticipated and look for legitimate flaws in design. In this case, it doesn't take a math genius to do the calculation that "if hurricane category > 3, then probability of breach in levee = 100%". That said, the project wasn't even done.

Look. I'm not one for casting blame at a time like this, but it looks weak for federal officials.
  • Approval for an inadequate levee restructuring project was given. I don't think the "hindsight is 20/20" argument applies here. The fact is, you have a city that sits below sea level that relies on levees to keep the Mississippi River out of downtown. You want those levees rock solid.
  • Despite that, funding was cut to that program.
  • Concerns about those programs being cut went unheeded.
  • FEMA understood the threat from a hurricane hit on New Orleans.
The full article can be found here.

Tags: , , ,

5 comments:

David Russell said...

How about a more historical target of blame: whatever halfwit decided to build a city below sea level in a hurricane zone in the first place!

Canadian Perasma said...

Right cause like..those French bastards in 1718 should have known better. Get a history book!

Mark Francis said...

The problem exists now, was known to exist, and needed attention.

There's more than just the levees at issue here. They are, frankly, the last line of defense. It was known that the entire coatline of Louisiana needed re-work, at a cost of $12 billion. Funding for that never really transpired.

It is true that we are looking at successive failures of many governments over many years, but, as they say, guilt shared is not guilt diminished.

In this case the logic is hard to avoid: They have $200 billion for a war in Iraq, but not a fraction of that to protect the southern coast from a hurricane they know is coming?

1/4 of America's oil comes up from the Gulf, as does 1/3 of their heating oil. The feds identifies this issue as a national security matter, and yet, wouldn't spend the money that was needed.

Now, the rebuildign will cost every level of government and the insurance industry several times the cost of the original projects.

Not to mention the human cost.

We all need to learn by this, by the way.

Socialist Swine said...

There is another argument presented for why the destruction is to some degree the result of federal mismanagement. Namely, that the Bush administration repealed the laws codified during the Clinton administration preventing further development of the wetlands around New Orleans. Some have argued that the Mississipi delta region combined with the bayous of the area historically would have been sufficient to buffer against the storm surge. With those wetlands drained there's a more open flood plain. I don't personally know much about this topic so I can't say if the argument is sound or not but have you seen anything regarding this contention?

-Socialist Swine

Jim said...

I think that is a legitimate claim.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Louisiana Coastal Area Restoration Project, In addition to providing vital habitat to commercial and recreational wildlife and fishery resources, the coastal wetlands protect an internationally significant commercial-industrial area from the destructive forces of storm-driven waves and tides.