President Bush will request $1.5 billion more to help rebuild the levee system in New Orleans, the top federal official for reconstruction announced Thursday.
At a news briefing at the White House, officials dodged the question of whether the levees would be built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, using broader language instead to promise that the city’s citizens would be safe and the levees would be “stronger and better.”
“The federal government is committed to building the best levee system known in the world,” Donald Powell, the top U.S. official for reconstruction, told reporters. “It’s a complicated issue.”
The money the president is requesting is in addition to the $1.6 billion he has already committed to repair the breeches in the levees, correct the design and construction flaws and bring the levee to a height that was authorized before the hurricane, a Category 4 storm, hit on Aug. 29, killing more than 1,300 people.
“That work is being done as we speak,” Powell said.
Powell said the $1.5 billion that the president is requesting would pay to armor the levee system with concrete and stone, close three interior canals and provide state-of-the art pumping systems so that the water would flow out of the canals into Lake Pontchartrain.
‘Commitment ... for hurricane protection’
Levees will be rebuilt and will be as high as 17 feet in some areas, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said at the news conference.
“To all New Orleanians, it’s time for you to come home. It’s time for you to come back to the Big Easy,” Nagin said. “We now have the commitment and the funding for hurricane protection.”
The news came as a Senate panel released interviews that showed that local commissioners tasked with maintaining the levees did very little actual inspection of the floodwalls that failed.
Instead, Orleans Levee District commissioners “normally meet and get some beignets and coffee in the morning,” former commission President James P. Huey said in a partial deposition released at a hearing to examine who was responsible for overseeing the floodwalls.
‘How do you inspect levees?’
“You have commissioners,” Huey told investigators. “They have some news cameras following you around, and all of this stuff. And you have your little beignets, and then you have — you go do the tourist and that and you have a nice lunch somewhere or whatever. They have this stop-off thing or whatever. And that’s what the inspections are about.”
Asked about other levee inspections that might be more thorough, Huey told investigators: “When you say inspections — and I don’t really know and I couldn’t even answer to tell you — how do you inspect levees other than if you see seepage?”
Huey resigned from the board in October amid questions about no-bid contracts to his relatives in the days after Katrina.
A work order also released by the Senate panel that was dated Aug. 16 — two weeks before Katrina hit — shows that inspection crews did check the levees but also cut nearby grass and green space.
Process to take two years
Officials on Thursday said the levee system would be rebuilt to its previous level of protection before the hurricane season next year, and that the process of strengthening them further would take two years.
Nagin acknowledged that the most heavily devastated areas of the city — Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward — were not ready for returning residents, but he promised they would be eventually. He suggested that officials may need to find housing elsewhere in the city in the meantime.
“At the end of the day, our entire city will be rebuilt,” he said.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other Louisiana officials, as well as businesses and homeowners, have argued that the levees must be improved to protect against Category 5 storms if the New Orleans metropolitan area hopes to persuade people to return.
Such improvements would require federal funding. Early estimates ran as high as $32 billion, and it would take up to 30 years to complete the work.
Senate debating tax breaks
On Capitol Hill, meantime, Senate tax-writers embraced the casinos, golf courses and liquor stores as part of a roughly $7 billion program of tax incentives to rebuild Gulf Coast businesses damaged or destroyed by hurricanes.
The Senate could act as soon as Thursday on a package of tax breaks and other assistance that fulfills Bush’s call for a special business zone in the Gulf Coast. Lawmakers hurried to finish the bill before taking a holiday break. The House earlier had denied including the casino and other businesses in the tax relief.
The House last week passed its own package of aid. Its key benefits matched the Senate and included increased write-offs for small business investments and an additional write-offs for other businesses purchasing equipment and new property.