Levee restoration price doubles
Map release hinges on budget action
Thursday, March 30, 2006
By Bruce Alpert Washington bureau
WASHINGTON -- The cost of restoring levee protection in the New Orleans area to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels will be about $6 billion, twice as much as the Bush administration and Congress have appropriated to date, Donald Powell, the federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding, told members of the state's congressional delegation Wednesday.
Powell said he wanted to update the delegation on the latest cost estimates, but he did not commit to a financing source or whether the administration would seek the traditional 35 percent local share for the work. He said that "will be part of the deliberations" in coming weeks.
Louisiana delegation members who attended the briefing late Wednesday said they would insist on a 100 percent federal payment of the levee costs, because the failures of the levees and floodwalls during Katrina were caused largely by poor design and construction flaws that independent investigations have blamed on the Army Corps of Engineers.
Some of those who attended the meeting said they believe, based on information they received from Powell, that the final total could be even higher.
Powell also told the officials that the Bush administration believes the release of flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, eagerly awaited by residents and businesses deciding whether they can rebuild their properties, requires authorization that the levee restoration work will in fact go forward.
"For the flood maps to be released, the corps has to do some certification of the levees, and that has costs associated with it," Powell said. That certification, he said, could be as simple as the administration requesting authorization for the levee work, although it's possible that Congress will have to approve the request.
Powell reiterated that the federal government is committed to releasing the flood maps as soon as possible.
Delegation members praised Powell for updating them on the latest cost estimates from the corps, but some were surprised by the higher total for the levee repairs and restoration work.
"It was certainly a very sobering meeting in the sense that we're looking at billions of dollars of additional work beyond what has been perceived," said Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-Kenner.
Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, said, "All of us will be working" to see that authorization of the required levee work is approved by Congress if that's what is required to release the flood maps. But he said the possibility that local governments may be stuck with paying for a portion of the levee work could pose a major problem for governments that already face huge financial problems because of the loss of a significant portion of their tax base.
Financing for certified levees will affect the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency determines flood elevation standards, as stronger levees would ensure the safety of more residents in more neighborhoods, Jefferson said.
"Unfortunately, this information was not provided to Mr. Powell, the Louisiana delegation or Congress sooner, but I urge my colleagues not to let this new information prevent urgent action," Jefferson said. "The need to certify our levees and complete the flood maps is real, and we should act immediately to correct the corps' earlier mistakes, which compromised the safety of hundreds of thousands of people, so that Americans can return and rebuild."
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he will work with other delegation members and Senate leaders to determine whether an authorization of the levee work needs to be approved by Congress before the Easter recess, and if so, how best to accomplish that.,
Louisiana congressional delegation members said the higher cost, which indicates that the damage from Katrina was even more substantial than first estimated, shows the importance of winning a guaranteed revenue flow for levee work and coastal restoration.
"We can manage the higher costs -- and we always knew the costs would be substantial -- if we can get revenue-sharing," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has been pushing for a share of offshore oil and gas royalty payments since she arrived in Congress in 1997.
But with growing deficits and some members of Congress growing weary of the costs associated with Katrina, the task won't be easy. The House Appropriations Committee recently rejected a proposal by Louisiana lawmakers to include an authorization for levee upgrades and hurricane protection measures in a supplemental spending bill for Katrina recovery and the continued conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-7861.