It’s been almost 10 years now since Hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury on the Gulf Coast, setting in motion a massive failure of New Orleans’s flood-control system. More than 1,800 people lost their lives when Army Corps of Engineers-designed levees around New Orleans failed, allowing water to engulf the city.
What followed the levee failures was something not seen in an American city in a very long time. In addition to the huge loss of life, Americans outside the region watched on television as the city suffered more than $100 billion in property damage; massive and ill-organized evacuations; and the sight of thousands of Americans trapped in the squalor of the New Orleans Superdome for days, while their government demonstrated just how badly it was prepared for such a disaster. It was a slow-moving, man-made disaster, as CPR observed in a report issued a few days later, tracing the roots of the crisis.
Then-President George W. Bush and his administration were judged harshly in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and in an effort to deflect blame, his defenders in Washington and elsewhere argued that the real villains in the tale were environmentalists, because a lawsuit brought some 29 years earlier had supposedly prevented the Army Corps of Engineers from taking the flood-prevention approach it preferred. The argument, rather like the levees the Corps eventually built, just didn’t hold water.
The lawsuit centered on the Corps’ failure to prepare an adequate environmental impact statement on its preferred approach. When the court ordered it to do so, the Corps delayed for several years, then reexamined the matter and decided to build levees instead. Those levees eventually failed under Katrina’s weight.
Flash forward ten years to a story in Sunday’s New York Times, which kicks the last leg out from under the argument that anybody but the Corps should bear the brunt of the blame. A new study set to appear in the journal, Water Policy, and reported on in the Times, concludes (again) that the environmental impact statement litigation simply was not to blame. Rather, as report authors , J. David Rogersa, G. Paul Kemp, H. J. Bosworth Jr., and Raymond B. Seed write, “misinterpreted the results” of its own testing, and “wrongly concluded” that “sheet piles only needed to be driven to depths of not more than 17 feet instead of between 31 and 46 feet. That decision saved approximately $100 million, but significantly reduced overall engineering reliability.”
Moreover, the authors write that “We have not found any documented evidence in the project record or any other indication that reveals that the Corps believed its switch [from one plan to the other] would increase the risk of flooding to New Orleans.”
To its credit, the Corps long ago acknowledged its significant failure with the levees. One reason it was at liberty to do so was that the law was thought to protect the government from liability, meaning that the thousands upon thousands of businesses and homeowners who lost most or all of what they had built would encounter an impenetrable legal shield if they brought suit. So, as CPR President Robert Verchick puts it in the Times article, “There didn’t seem to be any credible threat of litigation against the federal government because they seemed to be almost completely immune.”
Of late, however, litigators are trying a new strategy: suing the government on the grounds that the post-Katrina flooding constituted a “taking” by the government, for which the property owners are now owed just compensation.
A federal judge recently agreed with the property owners and the new report’s findings support the argument. In the days, weeks and months to come, we’ll see if that legal interpretation holds up. But at minimum, the new report’s conclusions with respect to the Corps’ responsibility should forever put to rest the ridiculous argument that environmentalists are to blame because they insisted that the Corps prepare and publish a decent environmental impact statement. That evidence shows that the claim is all wet.