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Control of Levee System Debated in Louisiana


Here's more news on the effort to improve hurricane protection for the city of New Orleans. As we reported yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers is sketching out a system. But there's already a political fight brewing over who should control it, especially during a crisis. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from New Orleans.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Southern Louisiana's levee districts maintain the earthen barriers that keep the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico out of people's back yards. The districts dates back to the 19th century, and historically they've focused on protecting their own counties, or parishes, as Louisianians say. But after Katrina, there's been a movement to unify those levee districts into a single regional authority.

(Soundbite of equipment usage)

KASTE: In the Lakeview neighborhood earth movers are shoring up a new repair job on the infamous 17th Street Canal. When the wall here failed, the flood destroyed houses and left cars propped up against trees. Standing in the muck in her business suit, Janet Howard surveys the damage. She's president of a local think tank called the Bureau of Governmental Research, and in her opinion it doesn't make sense anymore for these flood barriers to be under local control.

Ms. JANET HOWARD (President, Bureau of Governmental Research): Hurricanes and floods don't respect parish boundaries.

KASTE: The weird thing is on this particular spot the waters did respect parish boundaries. The canal is the line between New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, but it was the Orleans wall that failed, so it's the Orleans side that's been trashed. A hundred yards away on the Jefferson side it's still a picture of suburban normalcy. The contrast leads some here to wonder whether the two walls had different maintenance standards. Howard says she's disturbed by recent news reports about what was going on, on the New Orleans side.

Ms. HOWARD: Sloppy--sloppy inspections that are kind of drive-thrus rather than the real kind of serious, walking, inspecting, detailed time-consuming tours that need to be taken. We have the stories about contracts that are let to family members, and just the focus seems not to really be on what it should be: protecting the public through--by making sure the levees are sound.

KASTE: Allen Borne, a lawyer who sits on the Orleans Levee District board, disputes the allegations of drive-by inspections.

Mr. ALLEN BORNE: They're talking about formal inspections that should have been walked. Well, they don't walk it but they ride it on a lawn mower so they're going five or 10 miles an hour. So the levees are inspected.

KASTE: He says other factors in the 17th Street Canal breach are still under investigation, but he rejects the notion that the patchwork of levee authorities means lower standards. He says history has taught people here to prize local control, especially after what happened during the great flood of 1927.

Mr. BORNE: The St. Bernard levee was blown up to save New Orleans. And, you know, I don't know that the St. Bernard people would like New Orleans people saying, `We're going to blow your levee up' or vice versa.

KASTE: It's a fear shared by many of those who oppose consolidation: the fear of giving some kind of regional entity the right to flood your community in a crisis. And although no levees were blown up during Katrina, there were disputes between the districts, such as Jefferson Parish's construction of an emergency levee which protected their side but trapped the water in New Orleans.

Mr. AL NAOMI (Project Manager, Army Corps of Engineers): It is a kind of selfish-choice situation where you have to decide which child to save.

KASTE: Al Naomi is project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that builds the levees and then turns them over to the levee districts. He says that during an emergency local districts need to think regionally.

Mr. NAOMI: Somebody has to be in charge and somebody has to say what the proper decision is in given circumstances, and it has to be worked out in the calmness of a conference room where people sit down and discuss these things in a calm manner and not in the emotion of a storm when people are flooding and people are on the roofs of their houses.

KASTE: Naomi hastens to add that it's not an authority he would ever want and he's not even sure the Corps should be in charge. The state Legislature has just created a new regional levee oversight board, but critics say it's just an extra layer of bureaucracy without enough real centralized authority. A bill for outright consolidation came close to passing the Legislature last month and proponents say they will try again in January. Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.