Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Louisiana Officials Could Lose the Katrina Blame Game


By Jeff Johnson
CNSNews.com Senior Staff Writer


(CNSNews.com) - The Bush administration is being widely criticized for the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina and the allegedly inadequate protection for "the big one" that residents had long feared would hit New Orleans. But research into more than ten years of reporting on hurricane and flood damage mitigation efforts in and around New Orleans indicates that local and state officials did not use federal money that was available for levee improvements or coastal reinforcement and often did not secure local matching funds that would have generated even more federal funding.

In December of 1995, the Orleans Levee Board, the local government entity that oversees the levees and floodgates designed to protect New Orleans and the surrounding areas from rising waters, bragged in a supplement to the Times-Picayune newspaper about federal money received to protect the region from hurricanes.

"In the past four years, the Orleans Levee Board has built up its arsenal. The additional defenses are so critical that Levee Commissioners marched into Congress and brought back almost $60 million to help pay for protection," the pamphlet declared. "The most ambitious flood-fighting plan in generations was drafted. An unprecedented $140 million building campaign launched 41 projects."

The levee board promised Times-Picayune readers that the "few manageable gaps" in the walls protecting the city from Mother Nature's waters "will be sealed within four years (1999) completing our circle of protection."

But less than a year later, that same levee board was denied the authority to refinance its debts. Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle "repeatedly faulted the Levee Board for the way it awards contracts, spends money and ignores public bid laws," according to the Times-Picayune. The newspaper quoted Kyle as saying that the board was near bankruptcy and should not be allowed to refinance any bonds, or issue new ones, until it submitted an acceptable plan to achieve solvency.

Blocked from financing the local portion of the flood fighting efforts, the levee board was unable to spend the federal matching funds that had been designated for the project.

By 1998, Louisiana's state government had a $2 billion construction budget, but less than one tenth of one percent of that -- $1.98 million -- was dedicated to levee improvements in the New Orleans area. State appropriators were able to find $22 million that year to renovate a new home for the Louisiana Supreme Court and $35 million for one phase of an expansion to the New Orleans convention center.

The following year, the state legislature did appropriate $49.5 million for levee improvements, but the proposed spending had to be allocated by the State Bond Commission before the projects could receive financing. The commission placed the levee improvements in the "Priority 5" category, among the projects least likely to receive full or immediate funding.

The Orleans Levee Board was also forced to defer $3.7 million in capital improvement projects in its 2001 budget after residents of the area rejected a proposed tax increase to fund its expanding operations. Long term deferments to nearly 60 projects, based on the revenue shortfall, totaled $47 million worth of work, including projects to shore up the floodwalls.

No new state money had been allocated to the area's hurricane protection projects as of October of 2002, leaving the available 65 percent federal matching funds for such construction untouched.

"The problem is money is real tight in Baton Rouge right now," state Sen. Francis Heitmeier (D-Algiers) told the Times-Picayune. "We have to do with what we can get."

Louisiana Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennen told local officials that, if they reduced their requests for state funding in other, less critical areas, they would have a better chance of getting the requested funds for levee improvements. The newspaper reported that in 2000 and 2001, "the Bond Commission has approved or pledged millions of dollars for projects in Jefferson Parish, including construction of the Tournament Players Club golf course near Westwego, the relocation of Hickory Avenue in Jefferson (Parish) and historic district development in Westwego."

There is no record of such discretionary funding requests being reduced or withdrawn, but in October of 2003, nearby St. Charles Parish did receive a federal grant for $475,000 to build bike paths on top of its levees.

Earlier this year, the levee board did complete a $2.5 million restoration project. After months of delays, officials rolled away fencing to reveal the restored 1962 Mardi Gras fountain in a four-acre park featuring a new 600-foot plaza between famous Lakeshore Drive and the sea wall.

Financing for the renovation came from a property tax passed by New Orleans voters in 1983. The tax, which generates more than $6 million each year for the levee board, is dedicated to capital projects. Levee board officials defended more than $600,000 in cost overruns for the Mardi Gras fountain project, according to the Times-Picayune, "citing their responsibility to maintain the vast green space they have jurisdiction over along the lakefront."

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