Not Again ...

by Jeremy Alford

The New Year might be off to a fresh start, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still missing deadlines and confusing its priorities.

If all had gone as planned and pledges delivered, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be pushing its employees right now to print up hundreds of copies of Louisiana’s new hurricane protection plan for public hearings around the state. Once reviewed, the plan would then be paginated in all its full-color glory and sent to Congress for final authorization.

But this is not the situation Louisiana finds itself in as 2008 starts to churn. It’s become the Corps’ habit to miss important deadlines, especially within the past two years. In 2006 alone, there were missed deadlines for the Harvey Canal floodgate, 17th Street canal pumps and related work on the London Avenue canal — just in the New Orleans area. Furthermore, the process that took place in 2007 to develop the hurricane protection plan was plagued with miscommunications and ill will carried over from previous Corps disappointments.

More than anything else, the holdup is another black eye to the Corps’ public image. Since the 2005 hurricanes, the Corps has been lampooned in Louisiana via Mardi Gras floats, witty T-shirts, bumper stickers and editorial cartoons.

This is not the reputation the Corps wants right now. Credibility is everything as the federal government enters its next stage of Gulf Coast recovery — which promises to be heated. It involves coastal buyouts; plans for Louisiana are still coming together, but the Corps is preparing to buy about 17,000 Mississippi properties that were significantly impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Similar buyouts are expected in Louisiana, but Corps officials are not leaking how many properties might be involved or where they are located. One objective of the voluntary program involves relocating low-lying communities that were hit hard by Katrina and Rita, and many people will not want to move.

This most recent delay in Louisiana, however, is rather significant. The Corps was scheduled to complete a plan to protect Louisiana from Category 5 hurricanes in December. Following community review meetings, the plan was to be sent to Congress for approval later this summer. The state has its own version of a master plan that has been vetted by scientists, university officials, the public and Legislature, but only plans presented by federal agencies such as the Corps can be introduced to Congress and authorized.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat, says Congress is ready to move on the plan — and has been ready to do so for months. “It is extremely disappointing that the Corps is again ignoring the intent of Congress by delaying their report,” she says. “While it is essential that the Corps get the report right, it is inexcusable for them to continue to delay when they have had more than two years to complete it.”

How far in advance did the Corps know it was going to miss the December deadline?

As early as February of last year, state officials were telling reporters that the federal process was six months behind schedule. In April, Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of the Corps’ Task Force Hope, also reported that the plan was gaining momentum but was still a “few months” back. A similar update was given to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority in June.

Then in August, the entire tone changed. Corps spokesman Vic Harris said in an interview with The Independent that the federal plan was “right on schedule.” Sidney Coffee, outgoing CPRA chairperson, and other Louisiana officials also confirmed at the time that similar assessments were provided to them by the corps. It was among the last few updates the state received prior to last week’s announcement of the botched December deadline.

In the Corps’ defense, Assistant Secretary of the Army Civil Works John Woodley penned a letter to Congress on Dec. 20 explaining that the “magnitude of data and the tools required to analyze” 16,000 square miles of south Louisiana “far exceed any prior USACE hurricane risk reduction efforts.”

The excuse does little to address the ongoing concerns of coastal communities — most of the parishes that will be impacted by the plan have no idea what’s going to be in it. State officials have long-held fears that the federal plan will completely ignore the recommendations spelled out in the state’s master plan. Durham-Aguilera told officials in various meetings from April to June that the federal plan would rely heavily on the state plan, but in August 2007, Harris said the federal plan would be a simple “template for decision-making” and void of any real recommendations.

For now, the only real frame of reference comes from the state’s $80 billion (and growing) master plan. In all, 50 different interest groups — from residents and engineers to hydrologists and social scientists — helped develop the plan during community meetings spanning two years. Local governments, members of Congress, both chambers of the Legislature and many newspapers have all endorsed the historic plan, which includes various marsh-restoration projects, levee alignments, floodgates and other mechanisms.

It is the first time Louisiana — or any other state — has brought flood control, hurricane protection and coastal restoration together into a single, far-reaching and comprehensive plan that attempts to cover generations of residents. “It took the nation’s worst disaster to fast forward this process,” says Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Bourg Democrat who guided the plan through the Legislature. “That was just about the only silver lining.”

The state plan, however, does not identify any monetary sources to help pay for implementation. But Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle says there are several federal and state sources of money to bolster the master plan. Chief among them is an increase in oil-and-gas royalty money the state receives each year from the federal government, which Congress granted last year. Louisiana is scheduled to receive $16 million annually over the next decade an up to $600 million per year beginning in 2017.

As a way to speed things along, Dupre and others created the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Financing Corp. to allow the state to borrow money now against these coming federal royalties. Conservatively, the move could provide the state with $500,000 in the short run. Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who leaves office this month, also put $200 million in surplus money into the current fiscal year for high-priority and emergency projects.

The sale of Louisiana’s 1998 tobacco settlement, if it ever actually happens, could yield $350 million more for the master plan, of which 20 percent would be dedicated to barrier-island maintenance. Meanwhile, mineral revenues will continue providing about $25 million annually to the state budget for coastal work. The state’s annual construction budget, as found in House Bill 2 each session, will likewise kick in another $25 million each year, based on traditional coastal payouts.

On the federal level, the Coastal Impact Assistance Program has given Louisiana $510 million over a four-year period and the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act is good for as much as $60 million each year. The Water Resources Development Act has about 25 percent of its budget allocated for Louisiana. But WRDA projects also require the state to put up 35 percent of the total cost, which in this case totals about $1 billion or possibly more.

So, where does Louisiana stand now? As a result of the Corps missing its December deadline, the holdup makes it more difficult for Louisiana to get its projects — whichever ones the Corps allow — in the pipeline for authorization, and money.

At least one Louisiana lawmaker believes the feds have finally gone overboard and are more consumed than ever with crunching numbers rather than turning dirt. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican, says the Corps is removing the human element from its planning all too often. “Unfortunately,” he says, “missing another key deadline will reinforce the fear many, including me, have that they haven’t adopted the right sense of urgency regarding coastal protection and that they’re too focused on cost versus best engineering.”