For years, Washington had been warned that doom lurked just beyond the levees. And for years, the White House and Congress had dickered over how much money to put into shoring up century-old dikes and carrying out newer flood control projects to protect the city of New Orleans.
As recently as three months ago, the alarms were sounding -- and being brushed aside.
In late May, the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers formally notified Washington that hurricane storm surges could knock out two of the big pumping stations that must operate night and day even under normal conditions to keep the city dry.
Also, the Corps said, several levees had settled and would soon need to be raised. And it reminded Washington that an ambitious flood-control study proposed four years before remained just that -- a written proposal never put into action for lack of funding.
What a powerful hurricane could do to New Orleans and the area’s critical transportation, energy and petrochemical facilities had been well understood. So now, nearly a week into the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, hard questions are being raised about Washington officials who crossed their fingers and counted on luck once too often. The reasons the city’s defenses were not strengthened enough to handle such a storm are deeply rooted in the politics and bureaucracy of Washington.
With the advantage of hindsight, the miscues seem even broader. Construction proposals were often underfunded or not completed. Washington officials could never agree on how much money would be needed to protect New Orleans. And there hung in the air a false sense of security that a storm like Katrina was a long shot anyway.
As a result, when the immediate crisis eases and inquiries into what went wrong begin, there is likely to be responsibility and blame enough for almost every institution in Washington, including the White House, Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers and a host of other federal agencies.
For example, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the Corps commander, conceded Friday that the government had known the New Orleans levees could never withstand a hurricane higher than a Category 3. Corps officials shuddered, he said, when they realized that Katrina was barreling down on the Gulf Coast with the vastly greater destructive force of a Category 5 -- the strongest type of hurricane.
Washington, he said, had rolled the dice.
Rather than come up with the extra millions of dollars needed to make the city safer, officials believed that such a devastating storm was a small probability and that, with the level of protection that had been funded, “99.5% of the time this would work.”
Unfortunately, Strock said, “we did not address the 0.5%.”
Corps officials said the floodwaters breached at two spots: the 17th Street Canal Levee and the London Avenue Canal Levee. Connie Gillette, a Corps spokeswoman, said Saturday there never had been any plans or funds allocated to shore up those spots -- another sign the government expected them to hold.
Nevertheless, the Corps hardly was alone in failing to address what it meant to have a major metropolitan area situated mostly below sea level, sitting squarely in the middle of the Gulf Coast’s Hurricane Alley.
Many federal, state and local flood improvement officials kept asking for more dollars for more ambitious protection projects. But the White House kept scaling down those requests. And each time, although congressional leaders were more generous with funding than the White House, the House and Senate never got anywhere near to approving the amounts that experts had said was needed.
What happened this year was typical: Local levee and flood prevention officials, along with Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), asked for $78 million in project funds. President Bush offered them less than half that -- $30 million. Congress ended up authorizing $36.5 million.
Since Bush took office in 2001, local experts and Landrieu have asked for just short of $500 million. Altogether, Bush in his yearly budgets asked for $166 million, and Congress approved about $250 million.
These budget decisions reflect a reality in Washington: to act with an eye toward short-term political rewards instead of making long-term investments to deal with problems.
Vincent Gawronski, an assistant professor at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama who studies the political impact of natural disasters, said the lost chances to shore up the levees were a classic example of government leaders who, although meaning well, clashed over priorities.
“Elected politicians are in office for a limited amount of time and with a limited amount of money, and they don’t really have a long-term vision for spending it,” he said.
“So you spend your pot of money where you feel you’re going to get the most political support so you can get reelected. It’s very difficult to think long-term. If you invest in these levees, is that going to show an immediate return or does it take away from anything else?”
Gawronski said flood control projects do not have the appeal of other endeavors, such as cancer research and police protection. At the same time, Congress habitually approves billions of dollars for highways and bridges and other infrastructure that politically benefits individual congressmen.
Gawronski called it inexcusable for the United States to have been “gambling so long” that the old levee system in New Orleans would hold.
“Disasters are often low probability, high consequence events, so there’s a gamble there,” he said. “It’s not going to happen on my watch, there’s the potential it might, but I’ll bet it won’t.”
In the case of New Orleans and flood control, another factor was at work: the reputation of the Corps of Engineers. Over the years, many in Washington had come to regard the Corps as an out-of-control agency that championed huge projects and sometimes exaggerated need and benefits.
The Corps began as a tiny regiment during the Revolutionary War era; it now employs about 35,000 people to build dams, deepen harbors, dig ditches and erect seawalls, among other things. But critics say some projects are make-work boondoggles.
In 2000, Corps leaders were found to have manipulated an economic study to justify a Mississippi River project that would have cost billions. The agency also launched a secret growth initiative to boost its budget by 50%. And the Pentagon found in 2000 that the Corps’ cost-benefit analyses were systematically skewed to warrant large-scale construction projects.
As a result, said a senior staffer with the Senate Appropriations Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity, requests by the Corps for flood control money were especially vulnerable to budget cutting. “A lot of people just look at it as pork,” said the staffer.
The Bush administration’s former budget director, Mitch Daniels, was known as an aggressive advocate for Corps reform who cast a skeptical eye on its budget requests.
“The Army Corps of Engineers has a very large budget, and it has grown a lot over recent years,” Daniels, now the governor of Indiana, said. “To the extent there’s been any limitation of [the Corps’] budget, it has to do with previous tendencies to build marinas and things that don’t have much to do with preparing us for disaster.”
The Bush White House maintains it never ignored the security needs of the Gulf Coast. “Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One,” said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.
He said hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in the New Orleans area in recent years for flood prevention, and he said the failure of the levees was not a matter of money so much as a problem with drawing the right plans for the dike work and other improvements.
“It’s been more of a design issue with the levees,” he said.
Other administration officials said there were not enough construction companies and equipment to handle all the work that had been proposed.
John Paul Woodley Jr., assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, who has responsibility for the Corps of Engineers, said: “It’s true, we cannot accomplish all of our projects at full funding all the time. I think that’s true of any agency, particularly any public works agency, but we had a lot of work underway in New Orleans, and I was personally supportive of it.
“As a native of Louisiana,” Woodley said, “I understand the problems associated with flooding in New Orleans. I don’t think there’s any lack of support for flood control projects in New Orleans, particularly within the context of other projects around the country.”
On Capitol Hill in recent years, several Democrats warned that more money should be marked for the protection of New Orleans. For instance, in September 2004, Landrieu said she was tired of hearing there was no money to do more work on levees.
“We’re told, can’t do it this year. Don’t have enough money. It’s not a high enough priority,” she said in a Senate speech. “Well, I know when it’s going to get to be a high enough priority.”
She then told of a New Orleans emergency worker who had collected several thousand body bags in the event of a major flood. “Let’s hope that never happens,” she said.
But in May 2004, then Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he had visited the levees as a guest of Landrieu and believed them adequate.
He praised the ancient water pumps for keeping the waters from cascading into the city, proclaiming them “these old, old pumps that hadn’t been changed since before the turn of the century, that still keep New Orleans dry.”
“It was as clean as a restaurant,” he added. “These big old pumps work.”
Today, eight of those 22 pumps are underwater and inoperable.
Over the years, several projects either were short-changed or never got started. The Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project was authorized by Congress after a rainstorm killed six people in May 1995. It was to be finished in 10 years, but funding reductions prevented its completion before Katrina struck.
The Army Corps of Engineers did spend $430 million to renovate pumping stations and shore up the levees. But experts said the project fell behind schedule after funding was reduced in 2003 and 2004.
The Lake Pontchartrain Project was a $750-million Corps operation for new levees and beefed-up pumping stations. Because of funding cuts, it was only 80% complete when the hurricane hit.
The project that never was started was an examination of storm surges from large hurricanes. Congress approved the study but did not allocate the funds for it.
In May, Al Naomi, the Corps’ senior project manager for the New Orleans district, reminded political and business leaders and emergency management officials that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane was always possible. After that meeting, Walter Brooks, the regional planning commission director, came away shaking his head.
“We’ve learned that we’re not as safe as we thought we were,” he told the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune.
Last week, Corps commander Strock defended past work, saying, it was his “personal and professional assessment” that work in New Orleans was never underfunded. What he meant by that, he explained, was that no one expected such a large disaster before all the renovations and other improvements could be completed.
“That was as good as it was going to get,” he said. " We knew that it would protect from a Category 3 hurricane. In fact, it has been through a number of Category 3 hurricanes.”
But, he said, Katrina’s intensity “simply exceeded the design capacity of the levee.”
Asked whether in hindsight he wished more had been done, Strock said: “I really don’t express surprise in my business. We don’t sit around and say ‘Gee whiz.’ ”
Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.