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Along the Mississippi, Levees Demand Attention


In the weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and caused widespread flooding in New Orleans, there's been considerable discussion about what would be required to upgrade the city's flood control system to withstand a Category 4 or a Category 5 storm. A plan proposed in Congress would set aside $40 billion to protect the city from the most severe hurricanes, but as NPR's Greg Allen reports, water management experts around the country are raising questions about how flood control projects are planned and paid for.

Ms. KARIN JACOBI (Manager of Waterways, Kansas City, Missouri): So this is the Turkey Creek tunnel.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Kansas City's manager of waterways Karin Jacobi looks down into what at first appears to be a deep canyon. Turkey Creek is a shallow but fast-moving tributary that narrows here at the tunnel. When it rains hard, water spills out of the creek into nearby neighborhoods. To fix that problem, Jacobi says the city recently began working with the Army Corps of Engineers on a project that will add levees and other measures aimed at keeping Turkey Creek within its banks.

Ms. JACOBI: So what this project will do is it'll increase the size of the channel so it'll contain the water in the channel and it'll help it to get here to the tunnel without causing damages.

ALLEN: Here in Kansas City, as in communities around the country, water management officials like to say that every dollar spent saves $8 in damages from potential flooding. This is an $80 million project, with some two-thirds of the funding coming from the Army Corps of Engineers. But the future of the project, and several others on the drawing board in Kansas City, depends on how the Corps and Congress decide to spend federal dollars. Jacobi worries that the sudden and pressing needs of New Orleans may divert funds from important flood control projects.

Ms. JACOBI: That's always a concern when something new pops up, that when there becomes a national need for billions of dollars, everybody carries a little bit of concern on what is the impact going to be.

ALLEN: Across the country, the Army Corps of Engineers is working with many communities on badly needed and often long overdue flood control projects. And for every project currently under way, dozens more sit approved and on the shelf waiting for Congress to appropriate funding. Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense says the Army Corps of Engineers currently has a $58 billion backlog of projects and each year receives from Congress about $1 1/2 billion to pay for them.

Mr. STEVE ELLIS (Taxpayers for Common Sense): Now that's not to say that we just need to bump up the Corps' appropriations so that they can build more projects and reduce the backlog. It really is more of an indication that our country lacks priorities in how it approaches its water resources infrastructure and what to construct and what not to.

ALLEN: Politics play a big role in setting priorities. Since Congress appropriates the money, members have a say in which projects go to the top of the list. But another problem is that the fast pace of development often outstrips efforts of local, state and federal authorities to protect residents in flood-prone areas. Joseph Corrigan was with the Army Corps of Engineers for more than 20 years. He says in the Southeast where he was based, levee constructions simply couldn't keep up with development.

Mr. JOSEPH CORRIGAN: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, has a history of flooding in parts of town, and we were not able to ever develop a project that could protect that area. So periodically, when a hurricane comes through or a big rain event, they'd get flooded out, roads would be damaged, bridges would be damaged, railroads would be damaged and people's houses would be flooded and businesses.

ALLEN: In some cases, Corrigan says, badly needed projects sit on the shelf because poor communities can't come up with their share of project funds. The Corps subjects all of its projects to an analysis that weighs the costs against the potential benefits. The problem, Corrigan says, is that those tallies often favor wealthy neighborhoods with highly valued real estate over poor ones. And cost-benefit analyses have a hard time putting a value on a human life.

Mr. CORRIGAN: It's difficult to value. And my guess is when we're done with this, they'll decide it was not properly valued. And there's also an equity issue: Should you be able to get better flood protection from your government if you live in a rich neighborhood than in a poor neighborhood?

ALLEN: The experience of Hurricane Katrina may change that. The Army Corps of Engineers says improving New Orleans' levee system to withstand a storm as powerful as Katrina would have cost $2.5 billion. Weigh that against another cost: $60 billion in expected insurance losses, and in Louisiana, more than 800 people killed. Greg Allen, NPR News, Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.