Saturday, August 9, 2008

White House Reverses Course on Levee Cost-Sharing

Posted By on Sat, Aug 9, 2008 at 5:08 AM

Word came down swiftly and unexpectedly from the White House Thursday night: Instead of having three years to pay off its $1.8 billion share of hurricane protection and coastal restoration projects, Louisiana will now have upwards of 30 years to meet the debt.

Congress endorsed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) last year with a load of perks and projects for Louisiana, but for the federal government to pony up the $5.8 billon needed to cover the costs, the Bayou State was expected to cost-share at least $1.8 billion by 2011. Gov. Bobby Jindal negotiated the new 30-year arrangement during an after-hours meeting with retired Maj. Gen. Douglas O’Dell, who serves as President George Bush’s hurricane recovery chief.

While the decision is a boost to levee projects in New Orleans and other areas damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Jindal said the extended payoff period likewise benefits the bayou parishes region. “The agreement today will free financial resources for important hurricane protection measures such as the Morganza-to-the-Gulf, Larose-to-Golden Meadow and important restoration and hurricane protection projects in southwest Louisiana,” Jindal said Thursday night. The news is especially positive for Morganza-to-the-Gulf, a protection project spanning dozens of miles and made up of levee systems, dams, locks and oher structures — all protecting the Terrebonne-Lafourche central coastline. In all, there is $900 million in the WRDA legislaton for the Morganza project.

Hours before O’Dell and Jindal made their announcement, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a report indicating that the project will need to add additional armoring, or concrete backing, to levees. By giving the state more time to pay its share, Jindal said, the federal government is providing it with an opportunity to find ways to address such last-minute needs. “This announcement marks a significant step in the recovery of this region and our state,” the governor said. “Not only do our citizens rightly deserve the flood protection they were promised, but just as importantly, they deserve this protection in a way that will not financially undermine our state budget.”

The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the state’s guiding coastal agency, will be meeting soon to decide how to allocate $300 million that had been earmarked to go toward the original cost-share agreement. That’s because it’s now possible to plug that money back into the state’s master plan, officials say, for other protection and restoration needs.

In June, Congress passed a supplemental spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that included $5.8 billion to rebuild federal levees that failed following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Using her seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Mary Landrieu secured a 30-year term in the Senate version of the bill that mirrors what President Bush authorized Thursday. the House of Representatives, however, bowed to White House veto threats and stripped the additional flexibility from the bill. Congressional Democrats toured south Louisiana last month, led by U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, and the group ended the trip by calling on President Bush to extend the payoff period. Landrieu said she didn’t expect the president to take so long in making a decision, but it’s still good news.

“I, of course, would have preferred that the president had taken this step sooner, and worked with our delegation rather than against us on the supplemental bill, buut am nonetheless grateful for this decision,” Landrieu said. -  Jeremy Alford

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