Tuesday, August 30, 2005

80% of New Orleans Under Water

This is horrific:

MSNBC staff and news service reports
Updated: 1:39 p.m. ET Aug. 30, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Already showered with death and devastation by Katrina’s howling winds and drenching rains, the city braced for more misery Tuesday as water poured through broken levees.

Details on where the levees had given way were hard to come by, but the most serious breach appeared to be "a large section of the vital 17th Street Canal levee, where it connects to the brand new 'hurricane proof' Old Hammond Highway bridge," according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

"The breach sent a churning sea of water from Lake Pontchartrain coursing across Lakeview and into Mid-City, Carrollton, Gentilly, City Park and neighborhoods farther south and east," the newspaper said.

“There’s a serious leak and it’s causing the water to continue to rise,” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin confirmed. Adding to the problem were malfunctions in the system the city uses to pump out floodwaters.

So far, Nagin said, the historic French Quarter and central business district had not been badly flooded.

But Tulane University Medical Center Vice President Karen Troyer-Caraway said the downtown hospital was surrounded by 6 feet of water and officials were considering evacuating its 1,000 patients.

'Whitecaps on Canal Street'
“The water is rising so fast I cannot begin to describe how quickly it’s rising,” she said. “We have whitecaps on Canal Street, the water is moving so fast.”

"No one anticipated this," NBC News' Brian Williams reported earlier, standing knee-deep in floodwaters in the quarter.

The rising waters and failing pumps in the below-sea-level city were thwarting rescuers' efforts to pull hurricane victims to safety and assess the damage, but "many, many reports" of bodies floating in the flood tide made clear the deadly impact on the Crescent City, said Nagin.

"We probably have 80 percent of our city under water," Nagin added, "with some sections of our city the water is as deep as 20 feet. We still have many of our residents on roofs. Both airports are under water."

Television footage showed plenty of other problems for New Orleans, including buildings on fire. And police said they had made a number of arrests for looting.

The developing nature of the disaster made it impossible for officials to give specific accounts of which portions of the city were flooded, but aerial video showed standing water and destruction literally everywhere.

Somebody should have anticipated the flooding. They knew at least one levee had been breached last night. It doesn't take a genius to figure that more levees might break under the pressure of the flood waters. Why didn't the preznit return from his vacation and coordinate efforts both BEFORE and AFTER the hurricane hit? Why didn't he send in National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and other forces to support the levees and keep the lake waters from flooding into the city?

Because he was partying in Arizona, that's why.

That's our "War Preznit" for you...

UPDATE: Attytood is reporting that money earmarked for the New Orleans levee system was diverted to the Iraq war efforts instead:

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.

-- Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 8, 2004.

This picture is an aerial view of New Orleans today, more than 14 months later. Even though Hurricane Katrina has moved well north of the city and the sun is out, the waters continue to rise in New Orleans as we write this. That's because Lake Pontchartrain continues to pour through a two-block-long break in the main levee, near the city's 17th Street Canal. With much of the Crescent City some 10 feet below sea level, the rising tide may not stop until until it's level with the massive lake.

There have been numerous reports of bodies floating in the poorest neighborhoods of this poverty-plagued city, but the truth is that the death toll may not be known for days, because the conditions continue to frustrate rescue efforts.

New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. 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, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

Yet after 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 Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars. (Much of the research here is from Nexis, which is why some articles aren't linked.)

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 this Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness:

"The $750 million Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection project is another major Corps project, which remains about 20% incomplete due to lack of funds, said Al Naomi, project manager. That project consists of building up levees and protection for pumping stations on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Orleans, St. Bernard, St. Charles and Jefferson parishes.

The Lake Pontchartrain project is slated to receive $3.9 million in the president's 2005 budget. Naomi said about $20 million is needed.

'The longer we wait without funding, the more we sink,' he said. 'I've got at least six levee construction contracts that need to be done to raise the levee protection back to where it should be (because of settling). Right now I owe my contractors about $5 million. And we're going to have to pay them interest.'"

That June, with the 2004 hurricane seasion starting, the Corps' 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,' he 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 panel authorized that money, and on July 1, 2004, it had to pony up another $250,000 when it learned that stretches of the levee in Metairie had sunk by four feet. The agency had to pay for the work with higher property taxes. The levee board noted in October 2004 that the feds were also now not paying for a hoped-for $15 million project to better shore up the banks of Lake Pontchartrain.

The 2004 hurricane season, as you probably recall, 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. According to New Orleans CityBusiness this June 5:

"The district has identified $35 million in projects to build and improve levees, floodwalls and pumping stations in St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes. Those projects are included in a Corps line item called Lake Pontchartrain, where funding is scheduled to be cut from $5.7 million this year to $2.9 million in 2006. Naomi said it's enough to pay salaries but little else.

'We'll do some design work. We'll design the contracts and get them ready to go if we get the money. But we don't have the money to put the work in the field, and that's the problem,' Naomi said."

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 was a bridge and levee job right at the 17th Street Canal, site of the main breach. The levee failure appears to be causing a human tragedy of epic proportions:

"'We probably have 80 percent of our city under water; with some sections of our city the water is as deep as 20 feet. Both airports are underwater,' Mayor Ray Nagin told a radio interviewer."

Washington knew that this day could come at any time, and it knew the things that needed to be done to protect the citizens of New Orleans. But in the tradition of the riverboat gambler, the Bush administration decided to roll the dice on its fool's errand in Iraq, and on a tax cut that mainly benefitted the rich.

And now Bush has lost that gamble, big time. We hope that Congress will investigate what went wrong here.

The president told us that we needed to fight in Iraq to save lives here at home, and yet -- after moving billions of domestic dollars to the Persian Gulf -- there are bodies floating through the streets of Louisana. What does George W. Bush have to say for himself now?


And as usual, the preznit will escape responsibility for this disaster by claiming it was an Act of God that could not be averted. After all, how can you blame Preznit Bush for a natural disaster?

Leaving aside the question of whether global warming is causing the increase in intense hurricanes the past few years (and Bush has done NOTHING to alleviate the effects of global warming), let's ask if New Orleans would be better off today if the money earmarked for the levee system hadn't gone to Halliburton instead?

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