Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 15, 2006

Why is FEMA the chief Katrina culprit?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on May 15, 2006

Michael Grunwald of the Washington Post asks some good questions in his story yesterday on the Army Corps of Engineers (emphasis added):

Then the Corps failed to protect New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, despite spending more in Louisiana than in any other state. Last month, the Corps commander acknowledged that his agency’s “design failure” led to the floodwall collapses that drowned New Orleans. So why isn’t everyone asking questions about the Corps and its patrons in Congress?

Somehow, America has concluded that the scandal of Katrina was the government’s response to the disaster, not the government’s contribution to the disaster. The Corps has eluded the public’s outrage — even though a useless Corps shipping canal intensified Katrina’s surge, even though poorly designed Corps floodwalls collapsed just a few feet from an unnecessary $750 million Corps navigation project , even though the Corps had promoted development in dangerously low-lying New Orleans floodplains and had helped destroy the vast marshes that once provided the city’s natural flood protection.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s failures didn’t inundate a city, kill 1,000 residents and inflict $100 billion in damages. Yet FEMA is justifiably disgraced, while Congress keeps giving the Corps more money and more power. A new 185-point Senate report on what went wrong during Katrina waits until point No. 65 to mention the Corps “design and construction deficiencies” that left New Orleans underwater. Meanwhile, a new multibillion-dollar potpourri of Corps projects is nearing approval on Capitol Hill.

These are good questions. As he notes, they don’t absolve FEMA, but they certainly suggest a much more complex picture of responsibility then the one that has emerged as the public consensus in recent months. Grunwald goes on to suggests answers to some of these questions in his piece, building off of his longstanding record of writing about the Army Corps. And see also John Barry’s companion article in the Outlook section which offers suggestions for how to fix the Army Corps of Engineers.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 15, 2006 @ 3:41 pm

I enjoyed reading these articles. Another recent article on the same subject appeared in the Tulane Law Environmental Review by Professor Oliver Houck. The USACE is essentially a contractor front for Congressional pork. Individual overhead rates are basically forwarded by other federal agencies when and after they accept mission assignments from FEMA during Presidential disasters. For twenty years in FEMA prior to my retirement I tried to get the OIG to audit overhead rates by the agencies on mission assignments. Of course the answer was always we don’t do that DCAA does this work. Most of FEMA’s contractors were audited by DCAA not FEMA/OIG. When the program officials finally decided to move they did it as a program review and discoverd that in some instances overhead rates by the USACE exceeded 100%. This is essentially the same overhead that is called G&A in government contracts. When the former Federal Insurance Adminstration told the USACE that it no longer would be able to do flood mapping each year by announcing to FIA how much of the annual fiscal map pot they wanted, but that FIA would now bid out (to the extent possible for A&E contracts under the So-called Brooks Act-named after Congressman Jack Brooks- it took a number of high level meetings in the Chief of Engineers Civil Office to convince them FIA meant what they said. The immediate savings for a typical average study was approximately 30%. It has not been publicly revealed but I wonder how much of the New Orleans area was mapped by the USACOE and how many of the new advisory maps are USACOE products?
The USACOE fought the adoption of private levee standards by FIA/FEMA and now it would be very interesting to see whether USACOE levee standards or FEMA/DHS standards are being used to reflect areas protected by levees in the New Orleans area.
The articles are right on! Unfortunately the USACOE operates nationwide and other areas are not “protected’ by their projects because even though designs may be adequate, the USACOE seldom spends the money after the construction phase to even determine whether the projects built are “as designed.” Also their is very little soils expertise in the USACOE and that also is a major problem. The destruction of the Water Resources Council and the non-statutory river basin commissions in the early 80’s left the USACOE to its own devices without being subject to formal interagency benefit cost regulations. This tragedy is now played out in New Orleans but could easily happen elsewhere. Examples, Red River, FARGO, ND, and Sacramento area in California. This story has not yet played out but it could be that finally the USACOE will find out that “Mother Nature Doesn’t Grant Variances.!”

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