יום ראשון, 27 באוגוסט 2017

Why America Still Hasn’t Learned the Lessons of Katrina

As Harvey plows through Texas, officials in Louisiana are still battling with Washington and the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the next disaster.


The most important piece of the North American continent right now may be a slice of land here, 13 miles long, 65 feet wide, much of it just six months old.

From the air, the Caminada Headland is a sparkling strip of beige and green rising up from the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also a barricade, protecting one of the most important nodes in North America's oil supply, a busy seaport serving more than 90 percent of deep-water oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana coast, this strip served as a critical barrier between the pounding waters of the Gulf and the machinery of the port just half a mile behind—and was all but washed away in the process, becoming little more than a narrow strip of sand with waves crashing over it. Restoring it before the next major hurricane became a top priority.

“It’s pretty freaking amazing. All of this stuff was the first line of defense that was just gone,” said Garret Graves, a U.S. congressman who served for six years as the head of Louisiana's coastal protection and restoration efforts in the wake of Katrina.

Today, Caminada Headland is a robust new island backed by thick, healthy marshes, thanks to a $216 million project launched by Graves and the state of Louisiana. But what looks like a success story from the window of a seaplane was, to Graves and nearly everyone else involved, an expensive and exhausting struggle—one that raises serious questions about America's ability to grapple with the increasing problems caused by rising coastal waters and more destructive storms as the climate changes.

As Hurricane Harvey plows furiously across the Gulf Coast, again endangering homes and critical industries, Graves and others worry that Washington’s systems for protecting communities against weather disasters haven’t gotten better since that 2005 disaster, and in many ways may be worse. The state of Louisiana wasn't supposed to shoulder the Caminada Headland project itself: Rebuilding the island was originally the job of the Army Corps of Engineers, the 215-year-old entity charged with building and maintaining our country’s ports, harbors, locks, dams, levees and ecosystem restoration projects. Today, the agency is the single most important agency in coastal America's battle against rising seas, at the center of every major water-resources project in the country, either as builder or permitter. But the state of Louisiana, exasperated by federal delays and increasingly worried that the next big storm could just wipe out the port, eventually fronted the money and pumped the sand on its own. Today, despite years and millions of federal dollars poured into studying the Caminada Headland project and neighboring islands slated for restoration, the Corps has yet to push a dime toward construction.

Graves compares his experience with the Corps to that of a “battered ex-spouse”: “I feel like I’ve been lied to, cheated, kicked in the teeth over and over and over again.”

The sclerotic Army Corps of Engineers is the most visible and frustrating symptom of what many officials have come to see as the country’s backward approach to disaster policy. From the way Congress appropriates money to the specific rebuilding efforts that federal agencies encourage, national policies almost uniformly look backward, to the last storm, rather than ahead to the next. And the scale of the potential damage has caused agencies to become more risk-averse in ways that can obstruct, rather than help, local communities’ attempts to protect themselves. The Army Corps, for example, requires Louisiana to rebuild a full suite of five islands before it can reclaim any of the money it spent on the one headland—and is currently insisting it will take another half-decade simply to review an innovative wetlands restoration project the state has been working on for more than a decade and views as the linchpin of its coastal efforts. Meanwhile, new design standards inspired by Katrina have made levee projects wildly unaffordable.

As the effects of climate change play out, the risks posed by storms like Katrina and Harvey stand to get only worse. A not-yet-final draft of National Climate Assessment, produced by scientists across 13 federal agencies, predicts that global sea levels will likely rise between half a foot and 1.2 feet by 2050, and between 1 and 4 feet by the end of the century. In areas like the Northeast and the Gulf of Mexico, relative sea-level rise will happen much faster, researchers say. Coastal Louisiana is currently losing a football field’s worth of wetlands every 90 minutes, making it a harbinger for the crises that coastal communities around the country are expected to face.

Congressman Garret Graves stands on Elmer's Island, a section of beach on Grand Isle, a barrier island in lower Jefferson Parish. | William Widmer for POLITICO

“People around the country really need to be paying attention to what happens here,” said Graves.

Preparing for the looming disasters will require nimbleness, innovation, a willingness to take calculated risks and, as Louisiana has learned, respect for natural processes—all qualities that have been bred out of the Army Corps, and don’t get much consideration in federal policy. The agency molded itself around the earmark system, catering to the pet projects of individual lawmakers and then drawing them out as long as possible to keep the money flowing. Congress, too, learned to treat the Corps as a pork barrel: though Washington officially did away with earmarks a decade ago, lawmakers remain focused first and foremost on their local projects, pushing legislative language that serves their narrow ends without an eye to the mountain of red tape they are adding to the system as a whole.

And although preventing damage is widely considered to be cheaper than mopping up after the fact, congressional accounting creates incentives to spend money exactly the opposite way: Disaster relief bills are generally considered emergency spending, and thus not counted toward the federal deficit, while proactive investment in planning and protection must be funded through the normal budget cycle, which makes it look like cuttable federal spending at budget time.

It’s a situation that enrages Graves, a fiscal conservative who has lived and breathed coastal issues since he came to Capitol Hill as an intern in 1995. While in Washington he managed former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin’s coastal portfolio, and then Sen. David Vitter’s; his frustrations only grew during his six years as former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s coastal adviser, when he got his hands muddy trying to plan and build dozens of damage-prevention projects along the Louisiana coast, and found instead that virtually the only time money flowed was after a disaster, when it was too late and far more costly.

Now, Graves is in the position to do something about it. After winning a House seat in 2015, he has secured his dream job: Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee overseeing the Army Corps.


Since returning to Washington as an elected representative in 2015, Graves’ foremost mission has been to overhaul—or dismantle—the agency he has battled for the past two decades. Brash but charming, and far more knowledgeable about these issues and the federal bureaucracy than most of his staffers, let alone his colleagues, Graves has climbed quickly within the Republican Party. He is close with Steve Scalise, the No. 3 Republican in the House who represents another vulnerable swath of Louisiana coastline, and has endeared himself to the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman, Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, who this winter gave him the gavel for the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee that sets policy for the Army Corps and holds the power to investigate the agency.

Not surprisingly for a Louisiana Republican, Graves is backed by his state’s most powerful industry, oil and gas. Companies from ExxonMobil to Koch Industries contributed more than $191,000 to his campaign in the past election cycle. But surprisingly, he’s also close allies with environmental groups desperate for a conservative voice like his, one trying to help the country adapt to climate change rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

A barrier island in lower Jefferson Parish. |

Graves grew up visiting Louisiana’s marshes for weekend fishing and hunting trips as a kid, but says it wasn’t until he went to work for Tauzin that he came to see them as more than the backdrop for outdoor adventures. Louisiana’s land had been sinking for nearly a century, ever since the Mississippi River was walled off from its natural floodplain following the devastating 1927 floods. The mighty levees that protected river towns had the side effect of sending sediment straight into the Gulf, rather than spreading it back out into the marshes to replenish land. Commercial canals dug through the wetlands also invited saltwater landward, eating away at the region’s protective barriers. And climate change-driven sea-level rise has been compounding the effect.

Hurricane Katrina provided the real wake-up call, though: Residents saw firsthand that without the wetlands to help absorb their power, winds and waves pounded their communities with ferocious strength. In the wake of the storm, the Louisiana Legislature passed major reforms aimed at professionalizing the state’s levee boards and coastal protection efforts. It embraced the concept of “multiple lines of defense”—a modern understanding of interlocking coastal systems, in which barrier islands and marshes play a role along with man-made structures like levees and pumping stations to shield communities from storms.

Graves arrived in state government in 2008, just as many of those reforms were beginning to take effect. As Gov. Jindal’s coastal adviser, he took the helm of the newly established Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which was meant to coordinate coastal activities across the administration. He quickly realized that the half-dozen state agencies with a hand in the issue were tripping over each other, and consolidated the relevant pieces under his agency. He also streamlined the state’s unwieldy new Coastal Master Plan, aimed at stanching the loss of wetlands and protecting communities, down to $50 billion worth of projects to be built over the next 50 years—an amount seen as ambitious but achievable.

Today, Louisiana’s approach is seen as a model for states facing looming coastal crises, and its experts regularly host visitors from around the world seeking to learn from its resiliency efforts. Indeed, Louisiana is fostering this reputation, with a $60 million new “water campus” under construction in Baton Rouge, its flagship research center, the Water Institute of the Gulf, to be housed in a sleek, glass-encased building that straddles the levee and floats out over the main channel of the Mississippi River. But all this hard-won expertise has come with a side effect: A growing realization that the federal government—whose funding and know-how have been key to all projects of this scale—was far more of an obstacle than an ally. And the biggest frustration was with the Army Corps.

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