The Corner

When in Doubt, Dredge

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This article in yesterday’s Washington Post about the Mississippi Gulf River Outlet (MRGO) is largely on target and is further evidence that funding for the Corps of Engineers in New Orleans was adequate but sometimes spent on projects that were not necessary or even harmful. These decisions were largely made at the local level and then generally supported by the Congressional delegation. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) is totally separate from the 17th Street Canal breach on the lake front. The Industrial Canal divides the Ninth Ward (which is actually all of New Orleans west and down river from Franklin Avenue) from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain and is connected to MRGO near Interstate 310 in New Orleans East. Those areas received flooding during the storm surge itself, not in the aftermath like the lakefront sections of the city. The western side of the industrial canal over to the 17th Street Canal (the heart of New Orleans proper) was mostly impacted by 17th Street and London Avenue canal breaches. What is important to remember about Saint Bernard parish and the lower Ninth Ward (downriver from the Industrial Canal) of New Orleans is that although they have in recent years vocally opposed MRGO, the property owners have also stoutly resisted moving structures away from Mississippi River and the Industrial Canal in order to improve flood walls. In other words, you may have some local culpability here because the metro area feuded on the dredging of MRGO leading to distrust on other flood control matters in the region. This has, unfortunately left the region more vulnerable than it otherwise may have been. We see how this has played a part in the catastrophe in the past two weeks.

ME: It’s a fascinating article about how MRGO might have been the “hurricane highway” during Katrina just as had been predicted. But the Corps wanted to keep MRGO anyway.

Read this:

In 1965, the Corps of Engineers completed the MRGO — pronounced “Mr. Go” locally — which was a larger dirt-moving project than the Panama Canal. It was designed as a 76-mile shipping shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of New Orleans that would give cargo ships an alternative to the sinuous Mississippi River.

But less than 3 percent of the port’s cargo — fewer than one ship per day — passes through it. MRGO’s freight totals had dropped by half since 1994, while the port’s had increased overall. But the Corps still spent $13 million dredging the canal last year.

Critics have calculated the cost to taxpayers at more than $12,000 per vessel per day, and the Outlet has destroyed or damaged more than 20,000 acres of adjacent wetlands.

And this:

Before Katrina, the Corps was already studying whether to close the canal. The initial conclusion was no, but the Bush administration ordered the agency to redo its analysis.

The main advocates for the channel were the Port of New Orleans and its supporters in the Corps of Engineers and in Louisiana’s congressional delegation. “You had the people of St. Bernard Parish against the Port of New Orleans,” Boasso said at a community meeting Monday. “And the Port of New Orleans had the clout.”

Port Director Gary LaGrange said “the jury is still out” on whether MRGO contributed to Katrina’s devastation. But he said the port would have been willing to give up the Outlet if the Corps had completed a $750 million project to expand a lock on the Industrial Canal, another little-used shipping channel.

And this:

Several current and former Corps of Engineers employees say the Corps’ New Orleans district was reluctant to give up MRGO.

In recent years, Corps officials have spoken about closing it. But last year, they estimated their “project capability” for dredging the outlet at a whopping $38 million, signaling their desire to keep it open. “The general feeling was: ‘There’s no way we’re closing that,’ ” says one biologist who left the district this year. “They wanted all the business they could get.”

John Paul Woodley Jr., the assistant Army secretary who oversees the Corps, said the Bush administration had to instruct the agency to restart its study of whether to close the channel, because it hadn’t taken into account the channel’s destruction of wetlands, even though it was conducting a separate study of a $14 billion project to restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. Woodley said there was also concern that further erosion could merge the channel with Lake Borgne — which happened after Katrina.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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