The Bush administration is being widely criticized for the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina and the allegedly inadequate protection for “the big one” that residents had long feared would hit New Orleans. But research into more than ten years of reporting on hurricane and flood damage mitigation efforts in and around New Orleans indicates that local and state officials did not use federal money that was available for levee improvements or coastal reinforcement and often did not secure local matching funds that would have generated even more federal funding.
In December of 1995, the Orleans Levee Board, the local government entity that oversees the levees and floodgates designed to protect New Orleans and the surrounding areas from rising waters, bragged in a supplement to the Times-Picayune newspaper about federal money received to protect the region from hurricanes.
“In the past four years, the Orleans Levee Board has built up its arsenal. The additional defenses are so critical that Levee Commissioners marched into Congress and brought back almost $60 million to help pay for protection,” the pamphlet declared. “The most ambitious flood-fighting plan in generations was drafted. An unprecedented $140 million building campaign launched 41 projects.”
The levee board promised Times-Picayune readers that the “few manageable gaps” in the walls protecting the city from Mother Nature’s waters “will be sealed within four years (1999) completing our circle of protection.”
But less than a year later, that same levee board was denied the authority to refinance its debts. Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle “repeatedly faulted the Levee Board for the way it awards contracts, spends money and ignores public bid laws,” according to the Times-Picayune. The newspaper quoted Kyle as saying that the board was near bankruptcy and should not be allowed to refinance any bonds, or issue new ones, until it submitted an acceptable plan to achieve solvency.
Blocked from financing the local portion of the flood fighting efforts, the levee board was unable to spend the federal matching funds that had been designated for the project.
By 1998, Louisiana’s state government had a $2 billion construction budget, but less than one tenth of one percent of that—$1.98 million—was dedicated to levee improvements in the New Orleans area. State appropriators were able to find $22 million that year to renovate a new home for the Louisiana Supreme Court and $35 million for one phase of an expansion to the New Orleans convention center.