New Orleans Times-Picayune
by Sheila Grissett
June 8th, ** 2004 **
For the first time in 37 years, federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area's east bank hurricane levees, a complex network of concrete walls, metal gates and giant earthen berms that won't be finished for at least another decade.
"I guess people look around and think there's a complete system in place, that we're just out here trying to put icing on the cake, " said Mervin Morehiser, who manages the "Lake Pontchartrain and vicinity" levee project for the Army Corps of Engineers. "And we aren't saying that the sky is falling, but people should know that this is a work in progress, and there's more important work yet to do before there is a complete system in place."
"I can't tell you exactly what that could mean this hurricane season if we get a major storm, " Naomi said. "It would depend on the path and speed of the storm, the angle that it hits us.
"But I can tell you that we would be better off if the levees were raised, . . . and I think it's important and only fair that those people who live behind the levee know the status of these projects."
The Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2005 budget includes only $3.9 million for the east bank hurricane project. Congress likely will increase that amount, although last year it bumped up the administration's $3 million proposal only to $5.5 million.
"I needed $11 million this year, and I got $5.5 million, " Naomi said. "I need $22.5 million next year to do everything that needs doing, and the first $4.5 million of that will go to pay four contractors who couldn't get paid this year."
The challenge now, said emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri in Jefferson Parish and Terry Tullier in New Orleans, is for southeast Louisiana somehow to persuade those who control federal spending that protection from major storms and flooding are matters of homeland security.
"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, " Maestri said. "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."
Levee-raising is only part of the flood-related work that has stopped since the federal government began reducing Corps of Engineers appropriations in 2001, as more money was diverted to homeland security, the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq.