Levees loom as contentious post-Katrina issue for
10:44 AM CST on Saturday, February 4, 2006
By DOUG SIMPSON / Associated Press
The failure of the levee system was the root cause of the flooding and chaos triggered by Hurricane Katrina. But figuring out how to better manage those levees has sparked a hot debate.
The levee boards that now manage the flood-protection structures are made up of political appointees, caricatured since the storm by critics who say the board members are mere beneficiaries of their family and business relationships with members of the state House and Senate.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who opens her second post-Katrina special legislative session on Monday, now supports a plan to dissolve those boards and let the state oversee the levees in southeast Louisiana. Critics of the boards — including groups of New Orleans residents and business leaders — also support the idea.
"If the legislators are listening to their constituents and their conscience, they will vote for a single levee board of qualified professionals," said Jay Lapeyre, one of the New Orleans business leaders supporting levee consolidation. "If it's politics as usual driving their choice, they will choose to fragment the levee board in another patronage politics smoke screen."
However, that view also faces fierce opposition from legislators who represent the New Orleans area. Opponents, some of whom have political and family ties to the boards, argue that local officials are more familiar with a given area's flood control problems.
State Sen. Jay Dardenne said he supports the one-board measure but fears it will fail because of opposition from New Orleans-area lawmakers. And winning passage will be especially tough because the constitutional amendment must pass by a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.
"This is the proverbial devil's-in-the details bill," said Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge.
Blanco and business groups back a measure sponsored by Sen. Walter Boasso that would dissolve levee boards and create the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, a state body that would have oversight over the entire metropolitan area.
The measure would also require that members of the authority's board of commissioners include engineers, hydrologists and other experts in levee construction and maintenance. The current local boards have no such requirements.
Boasso, R-Arabi, said regional levee oversight — rather than local board control — is needed because local boards tend to focus on their own side of a levee. He argued that Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,100 people in the region because local levee bodies failed to think beyond their parish lines — political lines that don't stop floodwaters.
However, Boasso failed in a similar attempt in November. That bill was killed with the help of Rep. Ken Odinet, D-Arabi, who said it would take too much power away from the locals who are intimately familiar with their parish's levee system. Odinet's nephew also serves on a levee board in the region.
Boasso's previous bill was also wounded because Blanco did not support it. She threw her support behind Boasso's current measure — which is fundamentally the same — after she was stung by criticism for withholding support from the plan previously.