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Lowry: What caused the flood? Take your pick

Published September 17, 2005 12:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Hurricane Katrina makes for a straightforward narrative for liberals: Big government could have prevented the catastrophe, but President Bush so distrusts government, he didn't spend enough on levees and other projects to save New Orleans. Leaving aside that the free-spending Bush is hardly a miser, this narrative has no connection to the grimy facts on the ground. Indeed, if this is ''a big government moment,'' one wonders why government continues to look so bad.

The ''more funding for levees'' argument perpetuates a common misperception. The long-standing earthen levees surrounding the city did not fail. It was the floodwalls around the drainage canals that protrude into New Orleans that were overwhelmed. One breach seems to have been caused by a barge breaking loose from its moorings and battering down one of the walls. Will Nancy Pelosi now accuse Bush of underfunding barge moorings?

It is still a matter of debate what caused the other breaches. One expert at the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center told The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune that he suspects a ''catastrophic structural failure.'' Another expert suggested that ''the flaw may not be in the design but in the construction or materials.''

So the flooding didn't result from old levees desperately needing more funding. In fact, the section of 17th Street canal where a major breach occurred had just been upgraded, and The New York Times writes ''received more attention and shoring up than many other spots in the region.'' Even if Bush had larded more money on New Orleans - according to a broad-brush comparison in The Washington Post, he spent more in his first five years in office than Bill Clinton did in his last five - it wouldn't have stopped such a breach.

In a key respect, too much government funding was the problem. A hurricane researcher at Louisiana State University has long warned that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet - built in 1965 as a shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of New Orleans - would serve as a ''hurricane highway,'' magnifying storm surges and delivering them into the city. It appears that this is what happened.

The Washington Post reports that only 3 percent of the port's cargo comes through the canal, at a price to taxpayers of an estimated $12,000 per vessel. Still, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $13 million dredging the canal last year. Even though there were warnings about the dangers of MRGO, even though it was commercially marginal, the Corps wanted to spend up to $38 million on keeping it going. A former employee with the Corps' New Orleans district told the Post: ''The general feeling was: 'There's no way we're closing that.' They wanted all the business they could get.''

Here is the recipe for government, not as liberals imagine it, but as it actually exists: Take the Corps, for whom every project, no matter how unnecessary, is a ''pressing need''; combine it with Congress, where Louisiana representatives eagerly diverted Corps money to their pet projects; and throw on top the corrupt officialdom of New Orleans. Then shake well - and get out of the way.

The Orleans Levee Board, the state agency charged with protecting the levees, is so notorious that it makes Bush's FEMA look like a paragon of professionalism. Former president of the board Billy Nungesser, who was ousted after trying to reform it, says: ''Every time I turned over a rock, there was something rotten. I used to tell people, 'If your children ever die in a hurricane, come shoot us, because we're responsible.' We threw away all sorts of money.''

The board operates an airport, two marinas, and has a private police force that Nungesser says ''wears more gold braid than Gen. MacArthur when he went to the Philippines.'' The board just spent $2.4 million on a Mardi Gras Fountain near Lake Pontchartrain. NBC News reports that the board spent $15 million on building overpasses to a riverboat casino, and paid $45,000 to a private investigator to find dirt on a board critic - followed by another $45,000 to settle the resulting lawsuit. Feeling dry yet?

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Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.