WASHINGTON – A $40 billion plan to hurricane-proof the Louisiana coast has ignited a battle over how best to prevent a repeat of this year's double flooding of New Orleans.
Endorsed by the state's congressional delegation, the proposal would create a nine-member independent commission that would give Louisiana a large say in how the federal money is spent.
The huge sums involved and the measure's plan to waive federal environmental laws underscore the dramatic steps that Louisiana lawmakers say is needed to help the state recover from one of the country's worst natural disasters.
The commission -- with at least five members from Louisiana -- would have final say over Army Corps of Engineers (search) projects to protect New Orleans from the most potent type of hurricanes, known as Category 5, and to restore the coastline, control flooding and improve navigation.
Normal congressional processes for authorizing projects and spending money would be bypassed entirely under the proposal. Environmental laws would be waived once the commission signs off on the work plan, which the corps would have to develop in just six months.
Such an unprecedented transfer of power and money from Washington to a state usually would stand little chance of winning federal approval. Louisiana lawmakers, though, are hoping the catastrophic drubbing from hurricanes Katrina and Rita will force Congress and the White House to take a serious look at the proposal. It has been introduced as part of a broader reconstruction bill.
"The whole purpose is to give this a sense of urgency," said Sen. David Vitter (search), R-La. "We need to break out of the bureaucratic mentality where everything is studied to death."
While there is support for a new approach to hurricane protection, environmentalists complain that the proposal waives environmental studies and excludes existing projects for review.
Taxpayer advocates are up in arms over the proposed $40 billion cost -- 10 times the corps' current annual budget -- for a single state. Louisiana lawmakers want the money up front to pay for the plan the corps would develop in six months, even though it would take years, perhaps decades, to build it all.
Scientists are pushing for more outside review of the final protection plan and want to broaden it to cover the entire Gulf Coast. Also, there is widespread concern about concentrating so much power in the hands of just nine commissioners.
"They're asking for a $40 billion blank check," said Steve Ellis, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It is a huge amount of money that would be essentially front-ended as appropriations, and then driven independent of Washington oversight."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (search), D-La., said the proposal was "just a suggestion" and that she never intended to waive environmental laws. What is needed, she said, is a way to streamline the process so hurricane protection work can be done quickly.
"It is not our intention to loot the treasury," she said. "It is our intention to get support and help from the federal government."
The $40 billion estimate was based on the cost of nearly two dozen hurricane protection, coastal restoration, flood control and navigation projects that the corps either is building or planning. The list was adjusted to include protection against a Category 5 hurricane, according to congressional aides.
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the corps' commander, said before Rita made landfall that the agency could not develop a plan quickly to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane.
Existing levees in New Orleans were designed to withstand a Category 3 storm. Strock estimated it would cost $2.5 billion to upgrade them to Category 5 level.
"Just the study itself could take years," said Strock, "and the actual implementation of the study could take many more years."
Louisiana lawmakers and coastal resources experts disagree that it would take years to come up with a workable plan. They point to a detailed $14 billion coastal restoration plan, supported by virtually all interest groups, that is ready to go into place. It is designed to reduce hurricane damage by rebuilding disappearing coastal wetlands that help absorb storm surge.