Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Accountability for the Corps, Finally

By Steve White

Maybe the Corps of Engineers will be held accountable for something, finally!

News reports this week note that residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans East actually have the right so sue over the role that Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR GO) caused in intensifying storm surge flooding from Katrina in those areas.

“The 76-mile canal was completed in 1965 as a shortcut for ships heading from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico,” described the New York Times, aptly. “Environmentalists and local officials have long argued that it has done great damage to the coastal environment by piping salt water inland and killing off the cypress swamps and grassy marshes that serve as natural barriers to storms.”

In fact, several writers in recent years have remarked on the significant erosion of the so-called MR GO canal, meaning it is much wider today than it was intended to be 42 years ago. Thus, it provided an ample pipeline for rising waters to pour into nearby neighborhoods as Katrina made its way inland.

Lawyers for the Corps have argued that residents can’t sue over the failure of levees and other flood control projects, based on protections built into the Flood Control Act of 1928. That law was passed right after the great Mississippi River flood in 1927. The Corps’s response to that flood, building mammoth levees along the Mississippi and in turn depleting the Louisiana wetlands, led directly to the kind of catastrophe that occurred during Katrina. The storm met little resistance from a much depleted buffer zone of swamp and marshland between the Gulf and New Orleans.

Fortunately, for local residents, a federal judge has ruled, rightly, that the MR GO is not a flood control project but rather a navigational waterway.

Global warming, or climate change as politicians like to call it now, tops the headlines daily, as it should. Scientists recently agreed that it’s man made, and contributing to the cycle of increased hurricanes, stating the obvious to many long-dedicated environmentalists. But the Corps’ responsibility for what happened to New Orleans and the Louisiana wetland predates the widespread damaging effects of hydrocarbons, going back to a time in the early 20th century when they adopted a tragic “levees only” policy, against the advice of the best engineering minds of the time.

Why must we continue to make the same mistakes, over and over, from generation to generation? New Orleans needs proper levee protection, but what it needs even more is the restoration of the wetlands to protect it from future storms like Katrina. The plan to do that has also been in place for decades, and the costs, while high, are pennies compared to what the rising tide will wreak if we don’t.

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