By Senator David Vitter
As Isaac started tracking toward Louisiana, I decided I would embed myself with the Corps of Engineers. I wanted to see -- first-hand and in real time -- how our new $14.6 billion hurricane protection system performed, how areas outside this system fared and how the corps executed in an emergency.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter
On Tuesday, Aug. 28, I met Col. Ed Fleming, corps district commander, for the closing of the massive new Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier. This was the first time it had ever been shut to block storm surge from the Gulf and Lake Borgne. Later we joined others at the crucial 17th Street Canal pumps, and I reviewed preparations with the two local flood authorities at their east and west bank headquarters. By 7:30 p.m., it was time to lock down at the corps' Uptown command center for the worst of Isaac.
On Wednesday, after some sleep on an Army cot and the 6:30 a.m. command briefing, Fleming and I drove to the 17th Street Canal pumps to check on some difficulties. By then, the pumps were handling everything the Orleans and Jefferson inner pumps could send their way. The corps pumps continued to do this, though they could only reach 85 percent of design capacity.
Fleming and I then attended a New Orleans City Hall command center meeting, traveled to Highway 23 to check the temporary barrier the corps had built because the permanent swing gate is not yet finished, and met with Parish President Billy Nungesser about the flooding in Braithwaite and lower Plaquemines.
Over the next six days, I embraced and encouraged those who were most devastated -- in Plaquemines, LaPlace, Lower Jefferson and the north shore. I discussed solutions with local leaders, President Obama, Gov. Mitt Romney, Gov. Jindal and my delegation colleagues. And I helicoptered over the hurricane protection system and devastated areas outside of it with the national corps leadership.
What did I take away from all this?
First, our new protection system performed as designed, and the corps operated it in a very professional way. There was no significant flooding inside this system. Without the post-Katrina improvements, there would have been. This is no small fact, although Isaac didn't fully test the system.
Second, there was tragic flooding outside the system, including all of the areas noted above. So we have more important work to do.
When the post-Katrina system was being built on an expedited basis, many of these areas were promised protection through other corps projects like Morganza to the Gulf and Donaldsonville to the Gulf. But now the corps has dramatically slowed or canceled these other projects. And it has failed to design the badly needed surge barrier near the Rigolets. This is infuriating and unacceptable.
There is also the question of whether the new system worsened flooding outside it through a funneling effect. I have demanded a full and immediate examination of this by independent experts. In response, the corps has already committed to an examination and given positive if vague signals regarding outside experts. I'll nail down those details.
Third, I saw the corps perform extremely well in this emergency in its "Army mode." This was the mode in which it designed and built the $14.6 billion system relatively quickly following Katrina. The problem is that the corps reverts to its "bureaucracy mode" outside of emergencies. We need a no-nonsense "Army mode" corps all the time.
To get there, we need to reform the corps bureaucracy; prioritize its work; fund needed projects, and allow state and local partners to take the lead on many projects, which would result in work being done to the same standards but more quickly and cheaply. I'll continue to fight for all of these changes on a bipartisan basis.
So what is my bottom line from bunking with the corps? We're clearly better off in Southeast Louisiana than we were the day before Katrina. But Hurricane Isaac's devastation underscores that we have more work to do, and we can't pause or slow down in any way. We must fight like our survival depends on it -- because it does.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter is the top-ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee that overseas the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.