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Why Wasn't New Orleans Better Prepared?

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

For years, a lot of people in New Orleans were sounding the alarm. The city's levee and flood control system, they said, was not adequate. Complaints about cuts in federal funding got widespread coverage in the local media and even representatives of the US Army Corps of Engineers worried about projects left undone. Still, there's disagreement over whether more money would have had an impact on the current disaster. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Joe Suhayda spent years working with emergency managers in the New Orleans area talking about levee systems and what would and wouldn't work in a major hurricane. The former engineering professor at Louisiana State University says officials conducted multiple disaster exercises, including one held last summer.

Former Professor JOE SUHAYDA (Louisiana State University): Exactly this scenario was played out. There were simulations made. I got the document in front of me because it's one of those things that's just eerie because of the prescience of it, you know, the foresight.

FESSLER: The exercise involved a fictitious storm called Hurricane Pam. Suhayda reads the scenario setup.

Mr. SUHAYDA: A hurricane packing winds of a hundred and twenty miles per hour and a storm surge that tops 17-foot levees slams into New Orleans, killing an untold number of persons, trapping half of the area's residents in attics, on rooftops and in makeshift refuges. Parts of the city are flooded with up to 20 feet of water and 80 percent of the buildings in the area are severely damaged.

FESSLER: And so he says what happens this week should have come as no surprise. There had long been concerns among emergency managers that the city's levee system was only designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, not the stronger one that hit this week. And there were complaints that even this lower level of protection was inadequately funded. Al Naomi, a senior project manager with the Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, said in a magazine article in June that a pending a $71 million budget cut would delay some crucial levee projects. But Naomi told NPR that those projects were unrelated to the flood walls breached in this week's storm and that the funding would not have made a difference.

Mr. AL NAOMI (Corps of Engineers, New Orleans): As far as the Corps was concerned, those flood walls were completed and did not have to be readdressed. The Corps was satisfied that those flood walls were designed properly and were at the proper elevation prior to this event that would have survived the designed storm.

FESSLER: Unfortunately, the designed storm was not as strong as the real one. Naomi says he's been pushing for years for a stronger system to withstand a Category 5 storm, but he's had little luck. Richard Wagenaar, commander of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers District, says there's a difficult trade-off he doesn't like but understands.

Mr. RICHARD WAGENAAR (Commander, New Orleans Corps of Engineers District): Do you spend billions and billions and billions of dollars for an event that has never occurred in the history of the United States? Or don't you? How do you prioritize that with all the other national priorities in the last 15 or 20 years? I mean, that's the balancing that past administrations, current administrations and all the congresses have made.

FESSLER: One person who's well aware of those trade-offs is Mike Parker, a former congressman for Mississippi. Parker was named by President Bush to head the Corps of Engineers in 2001, but he was forced to resign shortly after because of disputes he had with the White House over the size of his agency's budget. He thinks adequate funding would have limited this week's flooding, but he says it can't be blamed on the current administration.

Former Congressman MIKE PARKER (Mississippi): We're talking about decisions that were made in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. We're talking a long time ago.

FESSLER: That's because levee projects are years in the making. Parker says both Republican and Democratic administrations have shortchanged the Corps, often dismissing these projects as pork barrel spending.

Mr. PARKER: I promise you, you can go down to New Orleans right now, look in the face of any person that is there and ask them, `Are infrastructure levees that protect the city of New Orleans from flooding, is that pork?' And they will look at you in all sincerity and say, `No, it is not pork.'

FESSLER: Parker hopes some lessons will be learned from the current tragedy. Yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed criticism that the administration hadn't provided enough funding for New Orleans' levee systems. He said the middle of a crisis is not the time to point fingers. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.