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Don’t Just Blame the Corps


A federal judge has decided to hold the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers liable for the flooding in New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina. At issue is the Corps’ maintenence of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), a rarely used shipping channel that hurricane experts warned for years should be shut down. I wrote about the Corps for NRODT shortly after the Katrina disaster. A scientist I talked to explained why MRGO posed a threat:

Dr. Ivor van Heerden of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center explains the geography: “The MRGO and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway [GIWW] join together in an area known as the funnel. You have the Industrial Canal in the middle of New Orleans. Heading off eastward from it is a canal that opens into a big Y — that’s where the GIWW and MRGO merge. That’s one of the very weak points in the system. When you get a surge such as Katrina, the water flowing westward amplifies the surge and leads to levee overtopping in those areas. There was very significant erosion during that levee overtopping during Katrina. It’s the design and location of the levee systems which creates this funnel effect, which caused levee overtopping and erosion and added to the flooding of eastern Orleans and St. Bernard’s parishes.”

So why didn’t the Corps close MRGO down? The short answer is that even though traffic was declining and residents of New Orleans hated it, a few influential companies still preferred the channel, and they joined the Port of New Orleans in lobbying to keep it open. The Corps, like most government agencies, hates to give up anything in its portfolio, and the Louisana congressional delegation likes to bring home the bacon, so MRGO stayed open in spite of the risks.

In other words, don’t just blame the Corps. Congress has the final say on the Corps’ budget, and the Port of New Orleans played a role. The larger issue is that the Corps — again, like most government agencies — is prone to being captured by special-interest groups and used by Congress as a vehicle for pork spending. This might be the only time in history that pork kept an artery unclogged, when it would have been better to plug it up.