Sunday, May 14, 2006

Michael Grunwald Gets It

The Washington Post reporter wrote an opinion piece today:
Last month, the Corps commander acknowledged that his agency's "design failure" led to the floodwall collapses that drowned New Orleans. So why isn't everyone asking questions about the Corps and its patrons in Congress?

Somehow, America has concluded that the scandal of Katrina was the government's response to the disaster, not the government's contribution to the disaster. The Corps has eluded the public's outrage -- even though a useless Corps shipping canal intensified Katrina's surge, even though poorly designed Corps floodwalls collapsed just a few feet from an unnecessary $750 million Corps navigation project , even though the Corps had promoted development in dangerously low-lying New Orleans floodplains and had helped destroy the vast marshes that once provided the city's natural flood protection.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's failures didn't inundate a city, kill 1,000 residents and inflict $100 billion in damages. Yet FEMA is justifiably disgraced, while Congress keeps giving the Corps more money and more power. A new 185-point Senate report on what went wrong during Katrina waits until point No. 65 to mention the Corps "design and construction deficiencies" that left New Orleans underwater. Meanwhile, a new multibillion-dollar potpourri of Corps projects is nearing approval on Capitol Hill.
The piece includes hyperlinks supporting his opinions.

Although my posts on this blog are frequently unfavorable of the USACE, I do not dislike the Corps. I have the utmost faith in the Army. When the Army, or any of our armed forces, is given a mission, they accomplish it. They succeed. If the Army were building our hurricane protection system, I would sleep soundly at night.

They aren’t. These companies are building our levees. Private companies. The USACE is, therefore, only a conduit for millions of public dollars to go to the private sector:
It got its start as an engineering regiment during the Revolutionary War, building fortifications at Bunker Hill. It is still run by Army officers, and it still oversees military projects such as the reconstruction of Iraq. But most of its 35,000 employees are now civilians working on civilian projects -- deepening ports; replenishing beaches; draining wetlands for agriculture and development; and taming rivers for barge traffic, flood control and hydropower. Officially the Corps is a Pentagon agency, but it functions like a congressional preserve; its civil works budget consists almost entirely of earmarks requested by individual members of Congress and endorsed by the Corps.
Most of the companies building our levees are local, but they wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t work for a profit. At the end of the day, their motive is money, not the public good. They wish to fulfill the obligations of their contracts and get paid. If the contract calls for them to build a floodwall on substandard soils, that’s what they will do. If the contract is for them to build to pre-Katrina design specifications when those were obviously not good enough, that’s what they will do.

And, when the city floods again, who will be held accountable? The USACE didn’t build the levees. You can’t throw a company in jail. How can we expect to stop making mistakes when no one is held accountable for the mistakes already made?

Even though civilians are doing the work, the Army is the public face of the projects. And, as Grunwald points out, the Corps, like any good soldier, is not in a position to question its orders:
Even Prather, the agency's public representative on the Hill, complained in that private e-mail that the Corps has sacrificed its credibility by defending its indefensible projects -- he called them "swine" -- just as the Catholic Church defended its wayward priests.

"We have no strategy for saving ourselves," he wrote. "Someone needs to be supervising the Corps."
I don’t want to be the victim of another “indefensible” project. Given the latest news coming from the USACE about the floodgates, I am not getting my hopes up.

UPDATE: John Barry had an opinion piece in the WaPo also and Grunwald had an online discussion about his piece.


Roux said...

So who is responsible...

"Officially the Corps is a Pentagon agency, but it functions like a congressional preserve; its civil works budget consists almost entirely of earmarks requested by individual members of Congress and endorsed by the Corps."

You answered your own question.

da po' boy said...

If congress members appropriate funds for projects that are unneccessary, then they can be blamed for wasting money that could have been better used in other areas. However, not all earmarks are pork.

So I ask again, who has been held accountable for mistakes made on those projects that were necessary? Who *can* we hold accountable?

humidhaney said...

Please post something about this Nagin Timeline on Mitch's site: