Home / New Orleans Officials Worried In 2004 That Federal Cuts Would Bring Disaster

New Orleans Officials Worried In 2004 That Federal Cuts Would Bring Disaster

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The Bush Administration ignored warnings last year that New Orleans’ east bank hurricane levees were left vulnerable as the administration diverted money from an Army Corps of Engineers project to the Iraq War.

When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA. Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained.

But, according to an article in the Philadelphia Daily News: “(A)fter 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security — coming at the same time as federal tax cuts — was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.”

In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to a Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness.

On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, La., told the Times-Picayune: “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”

Also that June, with the 2004 hurricane season starting, the Corps’ project manager Al Naomi went before a local agency, the East Jefferson Levee Authority, and essentially begged for $2 million for urgent work that Washington was now unable to pay for.

From the June 18, 2004 Times-Picayune: “The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don’t get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can’t stay ahead of the settlement,” Naomi said. “The problem that we have isn’t that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we can’t raise them.”

The 2004 hurricane season was the worst in decades. In spite of that, the federal government came back this spring with the steepest reduction in hurricane and flood-control funding for New Orleans in history. Because of the proposed cuts, the Corps office there imposed a hiring freeze. Officials said that money targeted for the SELA project — $10.4 million, down from $36.5 million — was not enough to start any new jobs.

There was, at the same time, a growing recognition that more research was needed to see what New Orleans must do to protect itself from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. But once again, the money was not there.

As the Times-Picayune reported last Sept. 22: “That second study would take about four years to complete and would cost about $4 million, said Army Corps of Engineers project manager Al Naomi. About $300,000 in federal money was proposed for the 2005 fiscal-year budget, and the state had agreed to match that amount. But the cost of the Iraq war forced the Bush administration to order the New Orleans district office not to begin any new studies, and the 2005 budget no longer includes the needed money, he said.”

The Senate was seeking to restore some of the SELA funding cuts for 2006. But now it’s too late. One project that a contractor had been racing to finish this summer: a bridge and levee job right at the 17th Street Canal, site of the main breach on Monday.


This article first appeared at Journalists Against Bush’s B.S.

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About David R. Mark

  • Howard Fineman, posting on MSNBC, wrote this:

    “(L)ast year the government ran a simulation of just this kind of event. All you had to do was read National Geographic or watch the Weather Channel to know, for example, that Lake Pontchatrain could slosh around like a shallow pan of water — and easily overtop the berms and floodwalls. As soon as Katrina started heading for New Orleans — and certainly from the moment it hit land — the president had every reason to expect disaster.”

  • Great research, David.

    That is all.

  • 1Potato

    Great spin, David.

    Clinton did even less.

    If Bush fights terrorism, you say the our military should be at home in case a levy breaks somewhere. But if we get attacked by terrorists, then it is Bush’s fault. And all the while you scream “Where’s Bin Laden”, but decry when we go around the world looking for him.

  • OMG I found the ‘smoking gun’ on SELA funding, and it wasn’t hard.

    The truth is that the federal government DID provide all the funding it was supposed to.

    When SELA was established in 1996, the agreement was that the feds would provide 75% of the money and the local government would provide the remaining 25%. The project is actually on schedule, but less than half way through its total planned improvements. It had not run out of funds, but had spent all the money allocated to it up to this point. The local governments actually came up short of their commitment last year, and Congress approved an extra $10 million to make up their shortfall.

    In addition, SELA did NOT suspend any projects because of funding cuts, but instead just chose not to pay their contractors and went ahead and did the work. This past year they were allocated their full budget and more and were able to make up their past deficits and pay off their contractors.

    So here is the key point. Not one SELA project was cancelled or suspended because of funding cuts and their budget had been restored as of fiscal 2005 with some extra money to make up for the shortfall from the local government and to cover their outstanding debts.

    Here’s the link to the SELA newsroom.


  • So you’re saying that all the New Orleans newspaper articles, and all the local officials interviewed, are wrong … and you are right?

  • I’m just stating the facts about SELA, David. Make of it what you will.


  • tim reagan

    One can certainly challenge the budgetary wisdom of the Bush administration, as well as the pork-barrel tendencies of Congress. For example, NOTE THIS > the recent $286 billion transportation bill included $231 million to fund a bridge to a “small, uninhabited Alaskan island.” As he puts it, “How could Washington spend $231 million on a bridge to nowhere – and not find $42 million for hurricane and flood projects in New Orleans?”

  • Now hold on, there are a while 50 people who live on that Island, it’s not uninhabited. They were polled and a majority of them said they didn’t need or want a bridge, of course.

    One small point, though. They did also allocate the $40 million or so needed for the SELA project in Louisiana. As I mentioned before, it got the funding for at least this year and to make up past unpaid bills.


  • Sarah

    Dave Nalle:

    Here is what it says on the link you provided.

    “Louisiana’s congressional delegation has worked hard to attain enough appropriations to move forward with the SELA initiative, but for the past three years Federal funding has been reduced due to homeland security needs and an increase in the federal deficit.

    The Parish has done its part, twice subsidizing endangered SELA projects with local money, when funds ran low.

    So what were you saying?

  • Here is an interesting article on funding. Tax cuts are great but not at the expense of the people especially in the case of New Orleans. 14 Billion over ten years would have saved New Orleans. This problem is well over ten years old.

  • spygirl

    Look at the project papers, Dave. The funding request wqs for 62.5 million, I don’t beleive that accounts for the unpaid engineers.

  • They got 46.5 of which 10 was for the unpaid folks. In a time of budget cuts accross the board what did they expect? That level of funding was in keeping with cuts in other areas, and generous considering 70 million went for Wetlands conservation at the same time, which had never been funded before and is arguably even more important than levee building.


  • Perhaps that for ideas on what might be useful for New Orleans and possible other places they should have a look at this.

    They were build in response to a great flood, and to prevent it from happening again.