Ex-Army Corps officials say budget cuts imperiled flood mitigation efforts

Current chief of engineers says budget problems did not contribute to crisis in New Orleans.

As levees burst and floods continued to spread across areas hit by Hurricane Katrina yesterday, a former chief of the Army Corps of Engineers disparaged senior White House officials for "not understanding" that key elements of the region's infrastructure needed repair and rebuilding.

Mike Parker, the former head of the Army Corps of Engineers, was forced to resign in 2002 over budget disagreements with the White House. He clashed with Mitch Daniels, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, which sets the administration's annual budget goals.

"One time I took two pieces of steel into Mitch Daniels' office," Parker recalled. "They were exactly the same pieces of steel, except one had been under water in a Mississippi lock for 30 years, and the other was new. The first piece was completely corroded and falling apart because of a lack of funding. I said, 'Mitch, it doesn't matter if a terrorist blows the lock up or if it falls down because it disintegrates -- either way it's the same effect, and if we let it fall down, we have only ourselves to blame.' It made no impact on him whatsoever."

Daniels, now governor of Indiana, did not respond to a request for comment.

Parker -- who, along with members of his family, was forced to evacuate his Mississippi farm on Sunday night -- drew media attention (and the White House's ire) in 2002 by telling the Senate Budget Committee that a White House proposal to cut just over $2 billion from the Corps' $6 billion budget request would have a "negative impact" on the national interest. Parker also noted that cuts would mean the end of scores of contracts and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

After Parker's Capitol Hill appearance, Daniels wrote an angry memo to President Bush, writing that Parker's testimony "reads badly. . . on the printed page," and that "Parker. . . [was] distancing [himself] actively from the administration." Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, was forced to resign shortly thereafter.

The Corps of Engineers handles many of the nation's largest infrastructure projects, such as draining and restoring wetlands, dredging ports and harbors, building dams, bridges and waterways, and preparing for and responding to natural disasters. In Katrina's wake, those functions have attracted the interest of policymakers and citizens alike.

The Corps' efforts have won it mixed reviews over the years. The New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote in 2002, "No one has been more responsible for keeping Louisiana habitable over the past 200 years than the Army Corps of Engineers. But the Corps has also caused the most problems."

The Bush administration consistently has pushed to trim the Corps' budget. But Congress has been reluctant to follow its lead, and regularly hands the organization several hundred million dollars more than the White House requests.

Amid the largesse, however, Congress and the administration have made targeted cuts, some of them in Louisiana. As New Orleans City Business noted earlier this year, the Corps' construction budget for the district has gone from $147 million in fiscal 2001 to $82 million in fiscal 2005. Scores of projects, from efforts to build levees, canals and pumping stations to bridge improvements -- all of which deal with flood mitigation -- are incomplete. (The administration's fiscal 2006 budget proposal cut construction funding for the district even further, to $56 million.)

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Control Project has felt the pinch particularly hard. After receiving $36.5 million for fiscal 2005, the project was cut to $10.4 million in the fiscal 2006 White House budget. The House has endorsed that funding level, while the Senate voted to boost funding to $37 million.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, the Corps' chief of engineers, denied that funding problems contributed to the crisis in New Orleans. "It is my opinion that based on the intensity of this storm, the flooding of the central business district and the French Quarter would still have occurred. I do not see that the level of funding was really a contributing factor in this case."

Some veteran Corps officials note that there's been a downward trend in funding since the Carter administration. But it's been more pronounced in recent years, and the New Orleans District has been particularly affected.

Among those who echo Parker's sentiments on budget priorities is Joseph Corrigan, who spent 2002-2004 as the deputy engineer for the Corps' Mobile, Ala., District. "We've had a number of really tough floods in recent years, but we have not been investing in levees, or flood damage reduction projects, the way we used to, even as populations have been exploding," Corrigan said. But, he adds, the lack of adequate preparation for the hurricane isn't exclusively about funding levels and priorities.

There is, for example, the issue of levee responsibility. "Not all of the levees, particularly in Mississippi and around the country, are federal," he said. "You may have a county or a local levee run by a local levee board, and private levee, and a federal levee that all have to work together, because if you have one fail, it can be disastrous." The coordination process is "excruciatingly difficult," he said, because the expertise and ability of local levee boards varies greatly. He also noted that projects frequently get delayed for years because of conflicts between state and federal agencies and environmental-related litigation, or because states and municipalities aren't able or interested in contributing to projects that have to be cost-shared.

Corrigan said that while the Corps both plans and trains extensively for disaster response, the affected Gulf Coast geography and scale of damage presents a unique challenge in effectively deploying resources.

"We go through exercises every year, and each Corps district has teams that are ready to roll when something happens, recognizing that the affected district's headquarters may be wiped out along with our people's homes," he said. "Right now, for example, I understand there's only 45 New Orleans District personnel on hand out of a 1,000-person district, so the Corps is shipping people in from all over to deal with every aspect of this. And we have open-ended contracts with contractors to be activated. The problem is figuring out if the contractors can still respond, and getting all the necessary equipment there. We have, for example, the Deployable Tactical Operations Center, essentially a mobile emergency headquarters. When I talked to guys two days ago trying to get it where it needs to be, they were having to use chainsaws every 200 yards to clear the way."

-- Senior correspondent Katherine McIntire Peters contributed to this story.