The Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to divert up to $1.3 billion for levee repairs from the Mississippi River's East Bank, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, to the West Bank, where tens of thousands of people have resettled.
The West Bank was one of the only parts of the New Orleans metropolitan area spared the flooding that followed the 2005 hurricane. But the levees protecting it — and the roughly 250,000 people who live there — are inadequate, the corps concedes.
If approved, the plan has the potential to slow new levee work on the East Bank, where most of New Orleans is situated, and pit the city's residents against those on the West Bank.
"I think what the corps is trying to do is create some kind of turf war," said state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, one of the West Bank's most prominent politicians.
The shift in funding is outlined in a budget proposal to be released this week and which Congress must approve. It would bring the total earmarked for West Bank projects to $3.3 billion, the bulk of $5.7 billion approved to fix and shore up the levees after Katrina.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Ray Nagin said the mayor is not pleased with the plans and wants the corps "to live up to the promise of full protection" for the city.
If more money is needed, the corps should get it and "not compromise our already vulnerable level of protection," Nagin spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett said.
The corps says projects on the East Bank will continue and that the levee system is as good now as it was before Katrina. Plans to further improve that system are tied up in technical reviews, according to the corps.
‘A more serious need’
"There are still lots of areas where we haven't built anything" on the West Bank, said Carol Burdine, a corps official overseeing West Bank projects. "It's got a more serious need because it is behind other projects."
Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Murray Starkel said the West Bank "probably is one of our most vulnerable areas." The work there is ready to go, and is already lagging behind other projects, so the corps argues that shifting the money now makes sense.
"We're working to build the most comprehensive system, that is, the best money can buy," Starkel said.
The West Bank would face serious flooding if a major hurricane like Katrina came ashore from the south or southwest. Some neighborhoods are below sea level, and there are navigation channels and lakes threaded through the region that can funnel a storm's surge. Plus, the levees are very low — in some places, only 5 feet high.
"Thank God the hurricane didn't hit the city dead even. There would have been no bank to run to," Shepherd said. "Thank God we have at least one side of the river where we can all congregate."
Louisiana's senators have already pleaded with President Bush for billions in new money to address the rising cost of levee work instead of shifting the funds.
‘We will not recover if this happens’
"I am deathly afraid that this vital emergency post-Katrina work is now being treated like typical Corps projects that take decades to complete. We will not recover if this happens," U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., wrote in a letter to President Bush dated Thursday.
A spokesman for Gov. Kathleen Blanco did not immediately respond Saturday to an e-mail seeking comment.
Russel Patterson, a 61-year-old retiree, can see the danger from his front yard in Harvey on the West Bank. On a recent day, he could see the cranes that are a reminder of the work on flood walls and flood gates along the Harvey Canal. Behind him, ships churned on the Mississippi.
"Just a few miles down and the Gulf is down there," he said. "Any help we can get would be great."
Keith Wells, a 40-year-old computer programmer, is one of the thousands of New Orleanians who moved his family to the West Bank after he lost his home. He said the move to Marrero was to give his children the chance to return to a normal life.
"The West Bank was the best opportunity to do that," he said. "It would be irresponsible for (the corps) to not address the issue over here."