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Why America Still Hasn’t Learned the Lessons of Katrina

PORT FOURCHON, La. — 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.

“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.

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.

“Prior to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, we were largely just subservient to the Corps and really deferential to the Corps. They told us to cut a check here, we cut a check there, they told us to do something, we did it,” said Graves. “It wasn’t until after Katrina and we started to do reorganizing and started developing our own internal capabilities that we started really pushing back and standing up to it.”

What Graves found was that the Corps would set rules and standards meant to minimize risk and protect federal taxpayers—but those rules could also be wildly unrealistic. Hurricane Katrina showed that severe storms could be far harsher than previously thought, so the Corps adopted new mandates for federal levees to be built significantly bigger and stronger—a change that made sense in theory but instantly multiplied the price tag on projects to the point they became effectively impossible. One project, a massive levee system designed to protect highly vulnerable bayou communities and a major oil and gas hub in Terrebonne Parish, was approved by Congress at $887 million in 2007, just weeks before the new standards came out. When the post-Katrina standards were applied to it, the price tag suddenly multiplied nearly twelvefold, to $10.3 billion. Local officials who had just been celebrating with champagne toasts after a decade and a half of trying to advance their project instantly realized that they had virtually no shot of ever seeing it built.

“Right now, the Corps is saying you either build our way or you don’t build at all,” said Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District. “There’s a risk when you go on the highway, too. It’s like the Corps says, ‘get in a tank;’ I say, ‘I can’t afford a tank, but I’ll put a seat belt on.’ The Corps is saying, ‘Don’t go, it’s not a tank.’”

Corps officials themselves acknowledge that the agency became much more conservative in the wake of Katrina failures, when a firestorm of criticism rained down on them. “I think it’s kind of a mantra of ‘never again,’” said Steve Stockton, who led the Corps’ civil works division from headquarters in Washington, D.C., until last year. But they also argue that the lack of funding from Congress is the real problem. “We’re prepared to do as much and as fast, in terms of structural solutions or even nonstructural solutions, as we have the authority and money to actually execute,” Stockton said.

Another bang-your-head-against-the-wall moment for Louisiana officials came when the Army Corps was deciding where to spend roughly $300 million on restoration projects. The money was meant to compensate for damage done to wetlands when the Corps built the massive new hurricane-protection system around New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. And the state wanted that money spent where it would matter most, pressing the political official overseeing the Army Corps to do that work in the areas deemed most critical to restore by the state’s Coastal Master Plan. She declined, and instead the Corps funded relatively small-scale projects, in some cases miles away from the coastal regions in most need of restoration. The Corps said it was simply following the letter of the law, trying to re-create wetlands most similar to the ones that were damaged, but the state contends that approach missed the broader point: That the areas where those wetlands were restored will soon disappear into the Gulf if nothing is done about the bigger land-loss problem.

“That’s a lot of coin, $300 million,” said Kyle Graham, who spent more than six years leading projects at the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority under Graves. “None of that $300 million is going into state-identified Master Plan projects. They’re doing little piddly projects, which are fine projects, but there are some prioritized regions out there. Why not at least focus on those first?”

***

Ironically, it was another disaster that gave Graves the opportunity to take a different approach—and put him on a more direct collision course with the Corps. It came in the form of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a 134-million-gallon well explosion that wrought major damage to coastal Louisiana’s already eroding wetlands and degraded fisheries. But it also brought a silver lining for Louisiana’s coastal policies: Billions of dollars of compensation directed toward the Gulf, some of it paid directly from BP to the state. When that settlement money began flowing, it opened a new avenue for the state’s coastal efforts: going it alone. Money and expertise are the two factors that usually prompt states to turn to the Army Corps for help; with those now under his own control, Graves figured Louisiana would be free to pursue its coastal plan on its own terms.

There was just one problem: the permits had to come from the Army Corps. The Corps isn’t just a planning and construction agency: it is also a permitting agency with a definitive say in virtually every project a state might undertake on its coastline or rivers. Every levee or marsh creation project needs a Clean Water Act permit for effects to wetlands—a program managed by the Corps—and with coastal Louisiana already dotted with scores of Corps projects, just about any new project would also require a so-called 408 permit from the Corps, allowing it to impact other existing projects.

The biggest collision would come in the form of an inventive new idea for controlling the Mississippi River. The basic notion is straightforward: If the bulk of the state’s wetlands problem was caused by trapping the Mississippi River between levees, preventing its nourishing silt from flowing out into marshes, state experts argue that a smarter levee design could actually help restore those marshes. The idea proposed by water engineers was to cut controlled holes, called diversions, in the Mississippi River levee, allowing freshwater and river sediment to be sent gushing outward in a way that mimics natural spring floods.

It is a big, ambitious plan meant to harness the power of nature to solve problems—the kind of approach that researchers are increasingly pushing in vulnerable regions like Florida’s Everglades and San Francisco Bay’s tidal wetlands. But it is also a massive gamble, a radical expansion of an idea that has been tried only in small-scale projects. Congress signed off on the first diversion project in 2007 when the state still planned to have the Army Corps lead the process. And as long as the project remained under the auspices of the Corps, no permits would be required. But when the state broke with the federal agency in 2014, it entered a colossal regulatory gauntlet.

The problem: any permit the Army Corps issues is subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a robust analysis of a proposed project’s effects to the ecosystem. These are the impact analyses required for big industrial projects like coal mines or housing developments, often forcing companies to make major changes. But they’re also required for public-sector projects aimed at restoring the environment. And the complex domino effect of an ecosystem project like the altered levees—which would have an impact on everything from salinity levels to fish populations—has stopped the Army Corps cold in its tracks.

“From the 30,000-foot view, you can look down on this and say, ‘I think this is a net benefit for the global landscape,’” said Tim Axtman, chief of the plan formulation branch for the Army Corps’ New Orleans District. “But if you’re locally in that footprint and you’re going to feel the effects, this is controversial.”

The state last year agreed to pay the Corps $1.5 million to fund the extra staff needed for the environmental analysis, and expected the permitting process to take about three years. That felt like time it didn’t have in its battle against wetlands loss, so advocates scrambled to think of ways to accelerate the project, and won it a spot on a new federal “dashboard” aimed at focusing Cabinet secretaries’ attention on high-priority infrastructures in a bid to clear away regulatory holdups. At a public meeting this spring, Corps officials announced the new timeline for the diversion’s permitting process after all that attention: five years.

In other words, the state’s efforts to speed up the permitting process had ended up adding two years to the timeline. Steve Cochran, associate vice president for coastal protection at the Environmental Defense Fund describes that announcement as “one of those Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments”—moments that are not infrequent when doing business with the Corps.

“We’re environmentalists and we care that we’re going to do right, not wrong, in these processes,” said Cochran, who previously led the group’s efforts to pass climate change legislation. “But given the purpose of the work and the time frames that we face in a place like coastal Louisiana where time is definitely not on our side, there seems to be no capacity for doing anything different than it’s always been done.”

***

By the time Graves returned to Capitol Hill in 2015, he had a bottomless list of grievances with the Army Corps, and a never-ending stream of ideas for how to go about fixing the entrenched agency.

Asking him about what needs to change is like setting a top turning. He goes and goes on his own energy, with no need for an additional push. There’s the way that Corps offices are funded—by billing staffers’ time to individual projects—that incentivizes them to draw those projects out and keep the salaries coming. There’s the bizarre fact that the Corps is still housed within the department of the Army, meaning that the highest level oversight the agency typically gets is from the assistant secretary of the Army, a midlevel political appointee. And there’s the way the Corps calculates its crucial cost-benefit analyses, a complex formula that determines the viability of projects and helps the White House prioritize them for funding, but that critics argue can be manipulated to justify or obstruct just about anything the agency might want.

But Graves also appreciates that there’s a much bigger problem that the country is facing. And in this sense, the Corps—strangled in red tape as it may be—is no more than a tool of a larger system. Across government, virtually the entire philosophy of disaster relief is to react after disaster strikes rather than help communities and residents to prepare in advance. This leaves Congress funding billions in disaster aid when an investment of millions ahead of time could have warded off the worst. And the problem is only likely to grow as a warmer climate brings more frequent and severe hurricanes, floods and droughts.

The rare Republican who acknowledges the scientific consensus around climate change, Graves does not shrink from the future projections. He knows them firsthand—and sees them as a tool for solidly conservative fiscal planning rather than fanning environmentalist fears. “Statistically, we can prove that we have increased vulnerability. We’re spending more on coastal storms, and some of these areas are being inundated with increased frequency,” he says. “So, call it what you want, there’s an adaptation issue here that needs to be addressed—and it’s more fiscally conservative to step in and be proactive on some of these investments than it is to continue to rebuild after they’ve flooded and continue to be reactive.”

Now a second-term congressman with a plum chairmanship overseeing the exact agency that he has sparred with for two decades, Graves is shopping around big ideas for change, from how Congress counts disaster planning against the debt, to changes in the National Flood Insurance Program aimed at encouraging greater upfront investment in resiliency, to ways of introducing competition to the Army Corps of Engineers by allowing state agencies and other players bid for the same projects.

He’s hoping that the current tumult in Washington could provide just the moment to finally make headway on these issues, though that may just be optimism shouting down experience. With the GOP at odds with itself and with the White House, the smart money is on little of consequence passing Congress anytime soon. The best chance would be an infrastructure package—infrastructure measures have been one of the rare areas in which Congress has notched bipartisan successes in recent years—but even that seems unlikely in the current environment, backed up behind health care and tax reform, to say nothing of nuclear brinkmanship and the ever-present Russia scandal.

If any portion of an infrastructure measure has hope of moving, it would likely be efforts to “streamline” or “accelerate” project reviews—longtime talking points among Republican lawmakers. Indeed, some of President Donald Trump’s recent contentious comments about the Charlottesville violence came during a news conference to unveil a new executive order on infrastructure streamlining.

Environmental groups typically balk at such moves, fearing that the drive for development will run roughshod over environmental protections. But when it comes to the Army Corps, they’re increasingly willing to talk. Green groups have now seen some of their own major national priorities stall under the Corps’ leadership, even as billions of dollars have been poured in and piles of studies completed. Restoration of the Florida Everglades, a rallying cry in the 1990s, was meant to take 30 years when Congress approved a 68-part plan in 2000. Today, more than halfway through the original timeline and $5 billion in state and federal money spent, not a single project has been finished. Even when top officials in the Obama administration prioritized a major Everglades project meant to stanch polluted water being shunted to South Florida’s coastal estuaries, career Corps staffers still couldn’t hit the deadlines necessary for winning congressional approval in 2014, declaring that the administration was pushing the project, which had been under review for more than three years, before it was ready.

“It’s astonishing. It was clearly the highest priority of the political leadership of the Corps of Engineers and it didn’t happen,” said David Muth, a director with the National Wildlife Federation. “I don’t know how you change something like that without demolishing the agency. It will take a fundamental reordering.”

Opening up the country’s foundational environmental laws for reform has long been a gamble green groups haven’t been willing to take, even as they have acknowledged that parts are ill-suited to the world today, especially as climate change makes it increasingly impossible to maintain the status quo that the laws are designed to protect. But groups working on the front lines in Louisiana say it’s a conversation that can’t be put off much longer, especially in the context of the Army Corps. And Graves is the rare Republican they trust to lead it.

“He knows the need to protect the environmental values that are at the heart of these kinds of projects and he has his own experience here that helps him understand that,” said Cochran with the Environmental Defense Fund, whose political arm donated $5,000 to Graves’ initial run for Congress in 2014.

With an opening in sight, however narrow, Graves is a whirlwind of brainstorming and networking, meeting with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster and White House officials to strategize. Shuster, who would be a major player in any infrastructure package that might come together, has indicated that he’s keen to bring Graves’ ideas into the mix.

Some of those who have worked with Graves on Corps issues in the past warn that he can be a double-edged sword—with a wit and charm that have brought him to where he is, but also a sharp-elbowed style that can be off-putting at the negotiating table. Graves’ expertise and doggedness could give him “a real opportunity to get some big things done,” said Ken Kopocis, a Democrat who worked with Graves as a Senate staffer during negotiations over a major 2007 water resources package—but they could also be his greatest liability, he said, if he can’t rein in his frustration.

Indeed, as he talks about the Corps, Graves alternates between the pragmatic—proposing specific, fundamental changes to realign the agency—and revolutionary, declaring that the Corps will soon “cease to exist” if the two-century-old bureaucracy doesn’t change fast. That’s risky language in a town where, despite bipartisan frustration with the Corps, lawmakers are still beholden to the bureaucracy for top-priority local projects.

***

There are some hints that the Army Corps itself recognizes it will need to change. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the agency was tasked with doing a major analysis of what could be done to protect the North Atlantic coastline from future storms. The final study, released in 2015, took a far more holistic view to coastal risk and resiliency than the structural, engineered approach the Corps has traditionally emphasized, proposing a suite of projects like home buyouts and oyster reefs alongside its traditional solutions like beach dunes and sea walls.

The Corps also has a lead staffer for climate preparedness and resiliency who emphasizes those concepts repeatedly. “We prefer ‘risk reduction’ and ‘resiliency’ rather than ‘storm protection,’” said the staffer, Kate White, arguing that the latter can give communities a false sense of security.

Meanwhile, there have been some efforts at the federal level to expand climate adaptation efforts beyond the Corps. The $50 billion Hurricane Sandy aid bill pushed the lion’s share of money aimed at helping communities prepare for sea-level rise and stronger storms to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, rather than the Corps. Among the programs it funded was a $1 billion National Disaster Resilience competition that’s offering seed money to innovative ideas around the country, from “green streets” in Connecticut meant to reduce storm runoff in urban areas, to a novel planning effort in Louisiana meant to get communities thinking about the nitty-gritty of what large-scale relocation will mean, both for the retreating residents and the higher-ground communities that they will retreat to.

Still, local officials say there will be limits to what they can do until the federal government—and especially the Army Corps—change the way they operate.

Hurricane Harvey is certain to teach this lesson again, in some form. With the storm expected to wreak billions of dollars in damage, there will likely be another of round of disaster aid, perhaps some more legislation directing the Corps to investigate the problem. But until the system fundamentally changes, it will simply be a waiting game, until the next, even stronger storm hits.

In Texas, local leaders know exactly what that will look like. While meteorologists have described Harvey’s dynamics as a “worst-case scenario,” with the potential to dump massive amounts of rain for days, it’s not the storm that Texas leaders fear the most. Emergency managers in the Lone Star State got a hint of what their worst-case scenario could look like in 2008, before Hurricane Ike shifted course. That storm still rang in as the third-costliest disaster in U.S. history, but had it shoved the predicted, massive storm surge through Galveston Bay and up the Houston ship channel, hitting the country’s fourth-largest city and the nation’s largest petrochemical and refining complex, it would have been far worse.

That storm will come someday, scientists say. There are only two questions: when? And will we have done anything to prepare for it?

The Army Corps has a study of the problem underway, including a controversial proposal to build a 55-mile-long “coastal spine” of dune barriers and gates at the mouth of the Houston shipping channel. The soonest construction could possibly begin, according to the Corps: 2024.

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