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Not Again... 

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

If all had gone as planned last year and pledges had been 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 across 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. Instead, we have a bureaucratic stoppage, one that arrives with some familiarity.

For starters, it has become a habit of the Corps to blow important deadlines, especially in the past two years. In 2006 alone, the Corps missed deadlines for the Harvey Canal floodgate, 17th Street Canal pumps and related work on the London Avenue Canal " and that's just in the New Orleans area. On top of all that, the 2007 planning process that was supposed to develop an improved hurricane protection plan was plagued by miscommunications and lingering ill will from previous Corps disappointments.

But more than anything else, the holdup, which has garnered national media attention in recent weeks, represents another stain on the Corps' image. Since the 2005 hurricanes, the Corps has been lampooned on Mardi Gras floats, witty T-shirts, bumper stickers and in editorial cartoons.

This is certainly not the reputation the Corps wants right now. Credibility means everything as the federal government enters the next stage of Gulf Coast recovery, which includes the white-hot topic of coastal buyouts. Everyone knew this day was coming, but that doesn't mean everyone is ready for it to get here. While plans for Louisiana are still in the works, the Corps is preparing to buy some 17,000 Mississippi properties that were significantly impacted by Hurricane Katrina. One objective of the voluntary buyout program involves relocating low-lying communities, but many people will not want to move despite recent experiences. Similar buyout programs are expected in Louisiana, but Corps officials are tight-lipped on the subject of how many properties might be involved or where the buyouts might occur.

The most recent Corps delay in Louisiana, however, involves a subject that's even bigger than the potential buyouts. The Corps was supposed to complete a plan for Category 5 Louisiana hurricane protection by December. After community review meetings, the plan was to be sent to Congress for approval some time this summer. Granted, the state has its own version of a master plan that has been vetted by scientists, university officials, the public and the state Legislature, but only plans presented by federal agencies such as the Corps can be introduced in Congress and authorized.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat, says Congress has been ready to move on the plan 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 last February, 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, reported that the plan was gaining momentum but was still a 'few months" back. A similar update was given to the governor's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) in June.

Then, in August, everything seemed to come off track. Corps spokesman Vic Harris said in an interview with Gambit Weekly that the federal plan was 'right on schedule." Sidney Coffee, CPRA chairperson, and other Louisiana officials confirmed that they received similarly rosy assessments from the Corps. That was among the last updates the state received before last week's announcement of the botched December deadline.

In fairness to the Corps, Assistant Secretary of the Army 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."

While that excuse will placate most members of Congress, it does little to address the ongoing concerns of coastal communities. In fact, most of the parishes that will be impacted by the plan have no idea what's going to be in it. The uncertainties surrounding the federal plan include fears by state officials that the federal plan would completely ignore the recommendations spelled out in the state's master plan.

To that end, Corps task force leader Durham-Aguilera assured officials in various meetings from April to June of last year that the federal plan would rely heavily upon the state plan. Then last August, another version of the truth came from Corps officials. In his Gambit Weekly interview, Harris said the federal plan would be a simple 'template for decision-making" and void of any real recommendations.

For now, the only consistent frame of reference comes from the state's $80 billion (and growing) master plan. In all, 50 interest groups " from residents and engineers to hydrologists and social scientists " helped develop the plan during community meetings that spanned two years. Local governments, members of Congress, both chambers of the state Legislature and many daily 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 in a single, comprehensive plan that attempts to protect generations of coastal residents. That kind of planning officially has been in the works for decades in Louisiana, but it took the 2005 storm season to put it into hyper-drive, says state Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Bourg Democrat who guided the plan through the Legislature. 'That was just about the only silver lining."

The state plan, while specific as to projects, does not identify any funding sources to help pay for implementation. Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle says there are several federal and state pockets of money that could make the master plan a reality. Chief among them is an increase in oil-and-gas royalties the state receives each year from the federal government for exploration and development of federal lands in Louisiana and on the Outer Continental Shelf off Louisiana's coast. Congress approved an OCS split with the state in late 2006. Louisiana is scheduled to receive $16 million a year over the next decade, then up to $600 million a 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 the anticipated federal royalties. Conservatively, that could provide the state with $500,000 up front, Dupre says, with additional payouts to be determined in the future. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat who leaves office this month, also put $200 million in surplus money into the current fiscal year for high-priority and emergency projects.

The proposed sale of Louisiana's 1998 tobacco settlement, if it ever 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 a year for coastal work. The state's annual construction budget, embodied in House Bill 2 each session, will likewise kick in another $25 million a 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 annual allocations from the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act are good for as much as $60 million a year, based on prior allotments. The Water Resources Development Act also has some $3.6 billion set aside for Louisiana " but WRDA projects will require the state to put up 35 percent of the total cost down the road, as Congress appropriates its share " whatever and whenever that might be.

So, where does Louisiana stand now? As a result of the Corps missing its December deadline and uncertainties surrounding the federal plan, the state is now waiting on a highly anticipated proposal that, when it's finally delivered, may not include any of Louisiana's suggestions. Additionally, the holdup makes it more difficult for the state to get its projects " if the Corps approves any of them " in the pipeline for federal authorization, which, in theory, ultimately leads to federal appropriations.

It's not the perfect way to start the New Year. At least one lawmaker believes the feds have finally gone too far 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 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."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

Correction In 'Endangered Species" (News & Views, Dec. 25, 2007), we reported that Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville, had angered his labor support due to a recent vote on a right-to-work bill. The disagreement was actually over Melancon's vote on the Employee Free Choice Act. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.

click to enlarge Just as this car and barge were stuck in mud left from - flooding after Hurricane Katrina, the Corps of Engineers' - plan for Category 5 hurricane protection for Louisiana - seems to be mired in miscommunications and ill will. - The Corps was supposed to present its report to - Congress for approval last month, but it missed the - deadline. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • Just as this car and barge were stuck in mud left from flooding after Hurricane Katrina, the Corps of Engineers' plan for Category 5 hurricane protection for Louisiana seems to be mired in miscommunications and ill will. The Corps was supposed to present its report to Congress for approval last month, but it missed the deadline.
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