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Hurricane Protection for New Orleans Debated

Four years after Katrina, still no long-term plan



RICHARD MASONER/FLICKR

The Army Corps of Engineers' road map for protecting coastal Louisiana from a Category 5 hurricane is substantially flawed because it fails to recommend a clear plan that can be adopted quickly, according to a National Research Council review released today.

The corps' long-overdue Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Program report, congressionally mandated after 2005's Hurricane Katrina and finalized this month, instead lays out 27 alternatives, highlighting none as preferred.

"The LACPR has not proposed, and apparently does not intend to propose, a single plan or a preferred initial course of action," said the NRC report, which evaluated the Army Corps' March draft plan. "This means that actions for improving hurricane storm surge protection for southern Louisiana will be further delayed."

Corps officials say that with such a complicated and potentially disruptive task at hand, they believe area officials and stakeholders should decide which plan is best for the region.

"What we determined was that rather than the corps moving ahead and making the decision on this, we needed to document what the viable plans were and what the tradeoffs associated with the plans were -- then, corroborating with the state, get back to the broader public and local governments and stakeholders and try to get their feelings on what the acceptable tradeoffs were," said Tim Axtman, senior project manager with the Army Corps' New Orleans protection and restoration branch.

But state officials also have complained about the approach, saying the lack of an actionable plan leaves Louisiana vulnerable.

"With another hurricane season approaching, Louisiana needs the corps prepared to take swift action," Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) said in March. "Instead, this report sets us up for more study."

The NRC report praises the corps for identifying nonstructural protection methods that do not involve building levees and floodwalls but criticizes the agency for failing to suggest how to coax the public to comply with the measures.

"Simply announcing that a nonstructural measure -- such as elevating buildings -- can reduce flood damages will not necessarily result in buildings being elevated," the report says.

The corps plan "does not deal with actions needed to actually persuade households to voluntarily take part in such a nonstructural protection program, such as informing households of the risks they face, formulating standards for cost-effective elevation and other nonstructural mitigation measures," the report states.

Axtman said such an initiative would require participation from multiple federal agencies and local leaders.

"There are lots of people that should and probably would be engaged in developing those kinds of details," he said. "There needs to be engagement from those folks. And ultimately, this may need to be developed into a national policy, not just one for coastal Louisiana."

NRC also critiqued the corps' plan for rebuilding the rapidly deteriorating Louisiana coastline, noting that the agency failed to prove that enough sediment exists to maintain the current configuration.

Rather than waste energy on trying to maintain the eroding shoreline, the corps should focus on protecting and restoring high-priority areas, the report says.

NRC disagreed with the corps' preference for working within existing congressionally authorized coastal restoration programs, recommending that the agency push for new legislation specifically targeting Louisiana restoration -- similar to laws developed for restoring the Florida Everglades.

"If these projects are to be developed and implemented in a coordinated fashion across all of coastal Louisiana, this current situation of multiple authorizations -- which may entail lengthy re-authorization processes if the corps wishes to adjust operational coals -- will hinder comprehensive, collaborative, and adaptive restoration and protection," the report says.

Finally, NRC recommended that the Army Corps work with Louisiana officials to set priorities and take swift action.

"There is work to be done, but I think we've really moved closer to the solution," Axtman said. "It's just that, as it turns out, there are multiple solutions to get the desired results."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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