New Orleans Poses Challenges for Army Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers has been at work on the nation's waterways for nearly 100 years: Its priorities are to support navigation and flood control. But in New Orleans, rivers cut through the city, making it difficult to simultaneously manage waterways and control floods.

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And to other national news. Plenty of people speak about rebuilding the New Orleans area, but almost every question about rebuilding has to wait for answers in the debate over flood protection. That job belongs to the Army Corps of Engineers, a branch of the military that for almost a century now has had two main jobs: bolstering navigation and controlling floods. As NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, nowhere else have those two missions come into more conflict than around the city of New Orleans.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

Sitting between a lake, a river and a gulf, New Orleans is a city trapped by water. The rivers, channels and canals that cut through this city were either dug out or straightened to speed navigation and grow the economy. Behind all that digging was the Army Corps of Engineers.

(Soundbite of bird)

SULLIVAN: The Mississippi Gulf Outlet is one of those canals. Completed in 1965, it's a large manmade river surrounded on both sides by marsh grass, seabirds and little else. On one end is the Gulf of Mexico. On the other is New Orleans. Adam Babich, director of the Tulane Law Clinic, called this canal a prime example of 20th-century ingenuity by the Corps.

Professor ADAM BABICH (Director, Tulane Law Clinic): It's almost a legacy of that 1960s can-do mentality. We can put a man on the moon. We can remake nature the way we want it to be.

SULLIVAN: That's just what the Corps did, plowing deep and wide through the wetlands of southern Louisiana. The promise was a quick root for ships that wanted to avoid the Mississippi River. Now eight weeks after Katrina, some people are describing the canal in very different terms.

Mr. FRANK KAMPO(ph) (Fisherman): We're now approaching a monster that ate New Orleans, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

SULLIVAN: Fisherman Frank Kampo steers his boat through the canal. He's been shrimping in these waters since he was a kid.

Mr. KAMPO: This is one of the biggest mistakes ever made in this state, maybe the country.

SULLIVAN: Kampo says that's because when the hurricane hit, the Gulf of Mexico raced up the canal, funneling a giant surge of water that easily overran the area's protection levees. And he's not alone. Fishermen, residents, area officials and a growing number of scientists and environmentalists believe this canal is responsible for much of the flooding that drowned St. Bernard Parish and parts of New Orleans.

Mr. JUNIOR RODRIGUEZ (President, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana): Somebody ought to go to jail for that.

SULLIVAN: St. Bernard Parish President Junior Rodriguez spends his days on a card table in the parish parking lot. A line of people waiting to talk to him snakes around his trailer. He's been fighting to close the canal since he first got involved in local politics 32 years ago.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: We've been preaching it to them. We've been telling it to them. I don't need an expert to tell me that. I need guys like Mr. Kampo that's been fishing all his life, lived down there all his life to tell us that. All these fishermen, they don't have a degree, but you know what they have? Common sense and a knowledge that they have with the hydrology of the water. They don't call it hydrology. They call it the tide.

SULLIVAN: Even before the hurricane, Rodriguez and others say that tide brought saltwater into the marsh lands, killing all the trees of the cypress swamps, the area's natural hurricane buffer.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: That's all gone. We were all open. The government is responsible for this.

SULLIVAN: When he says the government, he means the Army Corps and Congress which funds them. No other American city is more dependent on the Army Corps than New Orleans and its surrounding parishes.

Colonel RICHARD WAGENNAAR (Army Corps of Engineers): New Orleans really is the home of the Corps of Engineers.

SULLIVAN: Colonel Richard Wagennaar runs the Corps' New Orleans office. From the state, the canal was controversial. There was concern the canal was bad for flood control and even bad for the environment, but the Corps' own studies argued it would be good for navigation and made economic sense. Wagennaar says it still does.

Col. WAGENNAAR: It was an economically viable project. It still is economically viable. The question is is: Do the economic numbers outweigh environmental or other issues that have come along with the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet?

SULLIVAN: This question in many ways pits the Corps against itself. Corps critics say the Mississippi River alone is littered with a century of examples of the Corps choosing navigation and economic viability over flood control and the environment. By the time the Gulf Outlet was completed, it cost $92 million. Now it costs $13 million a year to dredge it, but even with that price tag, on average only about one ship a day uses the canal. Wagennaar says the Corps has to view the canal as part of the region's larger economic picture.

Col. WAGENNAAR: We have to take a balanced comprehensive look at projects like this and not just from one direction.

SULLIVAN: Perhaps the most important perspective is that of Congress, which decides which Corps projects to fund.

Prof. BABICH: From Congress's point of view, I mean, frankly it's pork.

SULLIVAN: What Tulane Law Professor Adam Babich calls pork is $4.7 billion spent on Corps projects each year.

Prof. BABICH: You're bringing a lot of money back to your state, to contractors, to people who can be helpful politically and in the name of economic development which is always a very attractive thing.

SULLIVAN: According to campaign finance reports, groups that might have benefited from Corps projects contributed heavily to Louisiana's legislators. The state's Republican Senator David Vitter received $154,000 last year from sea transport companies. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, received tens of thousands of dollars from marine engineers and port unions.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SULLIVAN: Here at the Port of New Orleans, all the waterways and canals of southern Louisiana converge. Port director Gary LaGrange stands on the edge of the Mississippi. He's watching large cranes load American exports aboard the cargo container ship to Zim Mexico bound for Central America. He ticks off products coming through the port.

Mr. GARY LaGRANGE (Director, Port of New Orleans): Lead, copper, zinc, aluminum, tennis shoes, sporting goods, sporting...

SULLIVAN: And all the people who depend on port jobs.

Mr. LaGRANGE: ...tow motor operators, forklift operators, crane operators, truck drivers...

SULLIVAN: To LaGrange, the canal known locally as Mr. Go is a crucial part of the port system.

Mr. LaGRANGE: Well, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, right now it's very much needed. They've given us no alternative but to use the Mr. Go.

SULLIVAN: But Gary LaGrange does offer a compromise. Pointing down river, he says if the Army Corps will give him a new ship lock on another canal, a project with a $760 million price tag, they can close the Mr. Go.

Mr. LaGRANGE: There's an alternative to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. For God's sake, let's get this lock completed.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Tell Gary LaGrange, that's out of the question all together.

SULLIVAN: St. Bernard Parish President Junior Rodriguez doesn't like the lock idea any more than he likes the canal.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: That's what we faced before. It was a lock and we'll close the son of a (censored). That's plum stupidity. I'll sit on the president's God (censored) doorstep if they come up with that bull (censored). We'll have people going up there and laying down in the street. People's lives are God (censored) important than that bull (censored) he's pushing for an economic benefit.

SULLIVAN: New Orleans' Corps chief, Colonel Wagennaar, says no decisions are likely to be coming any time soon. Colonel Wagennaar says the Corps can't reopen the canal anyway until 20 feet of silt left over from the hurricanes can be dredged from its bottom at a cost of $50 million.

Out on the canal these days, there's barely a ripple in the water and a few new visitors have taken up residence.

Ms. RHONDA HAMMOND (Resident, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana): There's another one out there. Oh, look, geez 'em, there was three of them.

SULLIVAN: Standing on the banks of the canal, St. Bernard Parish resident Rhonda Hammond watches as four dolphins make their way through the water.

Ms. HAMMOND: Look at them. I can't believe he's coming this close. Wow.

SULLIVAN: The Army Corps has launched a project nearby to restore 266 acres of the wetlands that once used to cover this area, but on the horizon toward the Gulf of Mexico, other projects are under way. There, the Corps has recently granted preliminary permits to dredge and fill 5,000 acres of wetlands. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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