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The slow drowning of New Orleans

The drowning of New Orleans was caused by complex factors of weather, geography, history, politics and engineering, but it was at heart a tragedy of priorities.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Two months before Hurricane Katrina, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) gave a chilling preview of its rampage. "This isn't a simulation of World War III, or 'The Day After Tomorrow,' or Atlantis -- but one day, it may be Atlantis," Vitter warned at a hearing. Then he displayed a computer model of a Category 4 hurricane smashing New Orleans and flooding the city under 18 feet of water.

"It's not a question of if," Vitter said. "It's a question of when."

New Orleans had always been described as a disaster waiting to happen, a city in a bowl below sea level. Vitter accused the federal government of neglecting the city's manmade and natural protections -- by underfunding levees that were designed only for a Category 3 storm and stalling a massive plan to restore Louisiana's tattered web of coastal marshes.

"Instead of spending millions now, we are going to spend billions later," he said.

But as Vitter was forecasting destruction, he was also holding up legislation that would have approved levee upgrades and launched the coastal restoration plan. And the holdup involved an industry-backed provision that Vitter had inserted to help Louisiana's loggers deforest cypress swamps, which would reduce the natural hurricane defenses the restoration was supposed to rebuild.

The drowning of New Orleans was caused by complex factors of weather, geography, history, politics and engineering, but it was at heart a tragedy of priorities -- not just Vitter's, but America's. For years, it was common knowledge in Louisiana and Washington that New Orleans could be destroyed by a hurricane. But decision makers turned away from the long-term investments that might have averted a catastrophe, pursuing instead projects with more immediate payoffs. Some of those projects made the city more vulnerable.

Saving New Orleans from the inevitable storm was a priority. But it was rarely the top priority. "I don't think anybody threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue about it," recalled lobbyist Jan Schoonmaker, an aide to former representative Lindy Boggs (D-La.).

The story of how New Orleans ended up underwater begins with its founding nearly 300 years ago, at the liquid crossroads of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. But that precarious geography was not destiny. A review of several decades of decisions by officials responsible for defending New Orleans -- especially the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Congress -- shows that the nation's dysfunctional system for selecting, funding and designing water projects helped seal the city's fate.

Local officials often resisted proposals to protect their communities from storms because they did not want to pay their share of federal projects. But it was the Corps and Congress that ultimately had the power and the resources to safeguard New Orleans.

The Corps is America's water resources agency, but America does not have a water resources policy. The Corps budget consists almost entirely of "earmarked" projects requested by members of Congress, and its priorities are set almost exclusively by the annual race for appropriations. Louisiana's congressional delegation traditionally dominated that race, but eyes were usually on prizes that had nothing to do with hurricane protection. Louisiana gets more Corps funding than any other state, but protection against a Category 5 storm was not sought until it was too late.

For decades, the Corps has waged an unrelenting war on nature to protect New Orleans from the Mississippi River, but one result has been the destruction of wetlands that helped protect the city from the sea. And when Corps engineers finally took up hurricane protection in the 1960s, they designed projects based on economic analyses that did not take into account the cost of human lives but promoted development of low-lying wetland.

"We don't have a water agenda in this country that makes any sense," said Mark Davis, the head of a nonpartisan coalition that has lobbied with limited success to restore Louisiana's coast. "Our policy is just to keep spending money. And we just paid a staggering price for it."

By the eve of Katrina's landfall, the city's most vital hurricane project was decades behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, and the Corps's own analysts warned that it might not protect New Orleans from a Category 3 storm. Congress and the Corps were "playing the odds game," as former senator John Breaux (D-La.) put it.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to point fingers, but Breaux said it's unrealistic to expect government officials to focus on events unlikely to occur during their lifetimes.

"San Francisco sits on an earthquake fault," Breaux said. "So do you say: Move 'em all out of there?"

Worst-case scenario
In New Orleans, the worst-case scenario came true after Katrina churned through the Gulf at Category 4 strength. Its initial surge, amplified by a controversial Corps canal, overwhelmed modest floodwalls on the east side of town, a stone's throw from another controversial Corps navigation project.

A much smaller surge from Lake Pontchartrain on the north end of town poured water into drainage canals where plans for floodgates had been dropped to save money. The surge buckled Corps floodwalls that were apparently either poorly designed or shoddily constructed. Journalists, scientists, engineers and politicians had predicted this, but no one in power had been determined enough to prevent it.

"We all should have paid more attention to the levees," said lobbyist Robert K. Dawson, a staff director of the House public works committee in the 1970s and an assistant Army secretary overseeing the Corps in the 1980s. "But I don't recall that any of us really did."

In 1718, French pioneers founded New Orleans on a crescent of high ground overlooking the Mississippi, a "natural levee" formed by silt the river had carried to its delta. The original settlement was above sea level; the Crescent City's historic French Quarter would remain relatively dry during Katrina. The city was always vulnerable to hurricanes that could roar up the Gulf into nearby lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne, but it had a measure of natural protection, thanks to a buffer of hundreds of square miles of coastal swamps that helped absorb the energy of storm surges before they reached dry land.

But the French focused their attention on the annual floods of the Mississippi, not the occasional storms from the Gulf. The initial settlers began work on a 3-foot-high, mile-long earthen levee to block overflows from the river, and by 1727, a colonial governor declared New Orleans just about floodproof. He was spectacularly wrong.

For more than a century, landowners on the river built their own levees, which were regularly swept away and rarely replaced. In the mid-1800s, the responsibility for flood-fighting shifted to appointed levee boards with the power to collect taxes and draft slaves, but the unruly river continued to overwhelm their flimsy dikes. New Orleans was earning a reputation as a vibrant port city, but also as an outpost in a watery wilderness.

Americans yearned to control the water, and tame the wilderness.

In 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission to stop the recalcitrant waterway from mutinying. Mark Twain scoffed that "ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, 'Go here,' or 'Go there.' " But Congress also assigned the Army Corps to control the commission. The can-do engineers of the Corps -- whose motto is "Essayons," French for "let us try" -- believed they could tell rivers to go where they wanted.

Corps engineers did not have much experience with flood control, and some critics urged them to consider reservoirs and floodways to give the Mississippi room to spread out. But the Corps insisted a "levees-only" policy would confine the river for good.

Unfortunately, the more that levees constricted the Mississippi, the higher its waters rose, and the resulting crevasses were more destructive than ever. As author John McPhee recounted, Corps officials proclaimed the river under control "before the great floods of 1884, 1890, 1891, 1897, 1898 and 1903, and . . . again before 1912, 1913, 1922 and 1927."

Never the same after 1927 flood
The last flood was the worst, killing more than 1,000 people, leaving 1 million homeless. New Orleans was spared, but only after the city's banking elite persuaded the Corps to dynamite a levee upstream, which virtually destroyed the poorer parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines. New Orleans was never the same after the 1927 catastrophe; it remained one of the nation's most important ports, but it began to lose its status as the financial capital of the South, as the region's center of gravity shifted to Atlanta.

The Corps had failed in its mission, but its power over the river only expanded. The agency's commander unveiled a new plan for the Mississippi, featuring reservoirs and spillways as well as higher levees, and when members of Congress asked if he expected them to rubber-stamp his plan just because the Corps wrote it, he replied, "Yes." Congress enacted the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, one of the most ambitious and expensive federal initiatives ever. The federal government would pay the entire cost, a departure from usual requirements for local contributions. The Mississippi's levees would be designed against an 800-year flood.

But protection had its price. The armored and constricted Mississippi no longer eroded its banks and rambled across its floodplain, so it no longer carried as much silt to its delta, and no longer built coastal marshes that helped blunt the impact of hurricanes. As the Corps choked off the river's natural land-building process, marshes disintegrated into open water at a rate of 25 square miles per year. And low-lying New Orleans began to sink even lower, as the tons of silt that had shored up the city's foundation no longer served as natural fill.

The city was now safer from the river. But it was more exposed than ever to the sea.

In the 1950s, after a series of storms battered the Atlantic coast, Congress directed the Corps to get serious about hurricanes, and the agency began devising the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection project for New Orleans. This was also the height of the postwar era of big infrastructure spending, and Congress put the Corps to work digging the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a shortcut to the Port of New Orleans.

Water projects were becoming a form of currency in Congress, a way to steer money to constituents and contributors, and the Corps was becoming a quasi-congressional agency, building the projects desired by its legislative patrons. In different ways, these two projects would help set the stage for Katrina.

Initially, the Corps was cool to the Gulf outlet; as late as 1951, according to an official Corps history, "the costs were shown to be high and the benefits . . . speculative." And critics in nearby St. Bernard Parish denounced it as a hurricane highway, a storm-surge shotgun pointed at the city's gut. But the outlet had strong support from Louisiana politicians and powerful shipping interests. Under heavy pressure, the Corps concluded that the project was justified as an economic engine, and Congress approved it in 1956.

At first, there was no such push for the hurricane project. The Corps determined that a "Standard Project Hurricane," the worst storm it deemed likely to strike over a 200-year period, would inundate "a major part of metropolitan New Orleans." But there was not much demand for expensive protection that would come in handy only once every 200 years, so the Lake Pontchartrain project remained on the drawing board until Sept. 9, 1965.

That was the day Hurricane Betsy ravaged New Orleans, trapping as many as 30,000 residents in their homes. Families hacked through attic timbers to take refuge on their roofs, and at least 70 people died. Damage exceeded $1 billion for the first time in the United States, earning the storm the nickname "Billion-Dollar Betsy."

Now it was clear something had to be done, and Louisiana's delegation -- led by Democratic insiders such as Senate Majority Whip Russell B. Long, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs and Senate Appropriations Chairman Allen Ellender -- had more than enough clout to make sure the Corps did it.

Long, son of the legendary firebrand Huey P. Long, immediately called President Lyndon B. Johnson and invited him to Louisiana. When Johnson offered to send his best man, Long shot back: "We are not the least bit interested in your best man." Johnson flew down right away. Six weeks later, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1965, authorizing the first federal hurricane protection for the New Orleans area.

Cost-benefit analysis
The Corps had calculated its Standard Project Hurricane before Betsy, a Category 4 storm, so its nightmare scenario was based on 42 milder hurricanes, and topped out at Category 3. Vic Landry, a Corps engineer who joined the New Orleans district in 1965, said the agency concluded that stronger protections would be "cost-prohibitive."

The Corps was required to recommend the project with the most economic benefits -- no matter who received them -- compared to the cost to taxpayers. It could not consider whether the benefits would be fairly distributed, or the value of wetlands the projects might destroy, or even the value of protecting people from death. So the Corps settled on 200-year protection from storms, a sharp contrast to the 800-year protection from the river.

"At the time, we had nothing," Landry explained. "Category 3 was a start."

The Corps aimed to protect New Orleans from the Gulf with levees much shorter than the river levees, plus two huge floodgates designed to keep storm surges out of the lake. But the economic rationale for the plan would be derived by reclaiming pristine wetlands at the city's outskirts, extending the levees beyond New Orleans to "hasten urbanization and industrialization of valuable marsh and swampland." A subsequent report would find that only 21 percent of the land protected by the Corps project was already developed; the rest was soggy, vacant and well below sea level, just waiting for subdivisions. Katrina would put those lands back underwater.

At one hearing in the late '70s, a freshman Louisiana congressman named Robert Livingston Jr. blistered a Corps colonel for protecting swamps instead of people. "Perhaps I am being a bit too complex," he said. "It would seem to me that if hurricane protection to the people and properties is the paramount importance, the portion you would want to complete first would be those levees surrounding inhabited areas rather than those around uninhabited areas.

"Would that not be a priority, sir?"

Hurricane protection was a priority of the Corps. But it wasn't the top priority of the Corps, or anyone else. "Generally speaking, there was less than moderate interest in hurricane protection," said retired Gen. Tom Sands, a former Corps commander in New Orleans. By 1976, federal investigators found that the Lake Pontchartrain project's completion date had already slipped 13 years. By 1982, the date had slipped even more, and the estimated cost had soared 1,000 percent.

One cause of the delays was a lawsuit filed by the group Save Our Wetlands, with support from fishermen and local officials, to block construction of two floodgates at the eastern end of Lake Pontchartrain. The suit argued that the gates would block tidal flows and damage the ecosystem. In 1977, a judge ordered the Corps to redo its cursory environmental analysis. The agency eventually abandoned the gates, deciding to build taller levees instead.

After Katrina, the controversy has been revisited, with some blaming the lack of floodgates -- and the environmentalists -- for the storm's destruction. But Corps officials recently told the Government Accountability Office that if they had gone ahead with the floodgate plan, Katrina's devastation would have been even worse, because the barriers would not have been large enough to keep the storm surge out of the lake -- and the levees around the city would have been even lower.

In any case, the decision to abandon the gates had as much to do with money as ecology. Local entities were required to pay all the operation and maintenance costs for federal hurricane projects, as well as 30 percent of construction, and New Orleans officials did not want to pay to maintain floodgates. Former senator J. Bennett Johnston Jr. (D) recalled that he supported the barriers plan but wasn't willing to "cram it down anyone's throat" once the Corps said the higher levees would be as effective and less expensive.

"We didn't really have any choice," Johnston recalled. "You've got to have consensus among the local sponsors."

‘More realistic’
Local officials resisted the goal of Category 3 protection for their communities as overly extravagant. In 1982, the Orleans Levee District urged the Corps to "lower its design standards to provide more realistic hurricane protection." The levee district, stocked with political appointees, could spend freely on private investigators, riverboat gambling and a $2.4 million Mardi Gras fountain. But it said it could not afford its share of protection from a 200-year storm, suggesting that 100-year protection would be fine.

"When there's no cost share, everyone wants their project to be a Cadillac," said G. Edward Dickey, a former Corps chief of planning. "But when there is a cost share, important projects don't always get the support they should."

The levee board also opposed a Corps plan for smaller floodgates at the mouths of three drainage canals stretching from Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans, saying they would be too expensive to maintain. So Congress directed the Corps to build taller floodwalls along the canals instead of gates designed to keep water out of the canals.

Two of those floodwalls collapsed during Katrina.

"The feeling was always: Let's hope it doesn't come on our watch," Landry said.

Local stinginess was a problem but not an insurmountable problem. The Mississippi delegation, for example, persuaded Congress to waive the local cost-share for the world's largest flood-control pump, even though economists declared the project a boondoggle. And Louisiana's politicians have been the undisputed champions of the Corps funding game; the second-place state, California, has eight times as many people.

"It was a contest among all of us to see who could make the best case, who were the best politicians, who could get the numbers up for your projects," recalled former representative W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.).

Retired Gen. Elvin R. "Vald" Heiberg recalled that when he commanded the Corps district in New Orleans, House Armed Services Chairman F. Edward Hebert (D-La.) promised him he would always get whatever resources he needed. "He kept his word," Heiberg said. In 1976, investigators reviewing the Lake Pontchartrain project noted that the district never lacked money: "To the contrary, the Corps has not been able to use all moneys allocated."

But the delegation tended to steer the Corps toward business-backed navigation projects -- damming and dredging rivers, deepening ports and building locks for barges. "They could have built the Hoover Dam around New Orleans with the money they brought home," said one former aide to Johnston, the senator. "But they always pissed it away on politically attractive projects."

‘Focused on navigation’
Johnston had his own pet project, a $2 billion effort to subdue the Red River between the Mississippi and Shreveport, La. Five presidential administrations opposed it, but Johnston pushed it through Congress; four of its dams were named for Louisiana politicians, and the handcuffed section of the river is now known as the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway. But it has been an economic flop, attracting only a tiny fraction of the barge traffic.

"I never felt like the Louisiana delegation had flood control on its mind," recalled Dawson, the former assistant Army secretary. "They were focused on navigation." Indeed, Dawson said Johnston threatened to block his nomination if he opposed the Red River waterway, relenting only after he agreed not to go out of his way to attack the project.

The Corps could also be swayed by politics, as it demonstrated when it approved a $750 million shipping lock for the New Orleans Industrial Canal. According to a transcript of an internal Corps meeting in 1980, Louisiana politicians, New Orleans port officials and navigation lobbyists wanted the lock to accommodate deep-draft ships, but the agency's economists balked. "There's no way you can economically justify that," one said.

A Corps official explained to Sands, then the Corps colonel in New Orleans, that "the regular decision process" would never approve the lock, but a "political decision process" might.

"Let's throw in the political considerations right here," replied Sands, who later became a consultant to the Port of New Orleans. Years later, a barrage of "Herculean" lobbying (according to a port memo) by the Louisiana delegation persuaded the Clinton administration to reduce the port's cost-share from $90 million to $27 million. The project was justified by predictions of increasing ship traffic. But traffic has rapidly declined ever since.

Local activist Pam Dashiell said she begged Vitter, Rep. William J. Jefferson (D) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) to fight the project and focus on hurricane protection for her low-income neighborhood, but she said they told her the port was too important to the economy. Katrina's surge later overwhelmed floodwalls along the Industrial Canal -- just a few feet from the lock project. "I'm not saying they didn't want stronger levees, but it wasn't as important to them as their pork," Dashiell said after Katrina.

The most controversial project was the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, known in St. Bernard Parish as "Storm Surge Alley." It has never lived up to expectations as a freight channel, and local officials have urged shutting it down. The Corps studied closing it, although it concluded in 2004 that the project was still economically justified. The Bush administration, noting that the study ignored environmental considerations, ordered the Corps to try again.

The agency spent $13 million dredging the outlet this year. The Louisiana State University Hurricane Center believes the "funnel" it forms near the Industrial Canal may have amplified Katrina's storm surge as much as 40 percent.

Wetland losses
"There were endless meetings," coastal scientist Sherwood "Woody" Gagliano said. "But nobody ever did anything about it."

Gagliano was the first scientist to warn that Louisiana's coast was disappearing, and that wetland losses would intensify storm surges. "We're creating deathtraps," he declared in speeches in the early 1970s.

At the time, ecology was in vogue. Congress was passing sweeping environmental laws. Wetlands were appreciated not only as nurseries for wildlife, but as water filters and flood sponges. But the Corps still focused on moving dirt and pouring concrete. "We were going through wetlands with abandon," Heiberg recalled, "and we didn't think twice."

In 1990, Breaux won passage of the Breaux Act, securing as much as $50 million a year for coastal restoration projects. But wetlands still eroded much faster than they could be rebuilt, and the Louisiana delegation helped promote the destruction.

For example, Tauzin, an artful Cajun with a bayou constituency who switched to the GOP when Republicans took over the House in 1995, sponsored a "takings" measure designed to help landowners dredge and fill wetlands on their properties. Michael Davis, a Clinton appointee overseeing the Corps, said he told Tauzin that the ragged marshes along the sole of the Louisiana boot helped protect the coast from hurricanes. But he said Tauzin lectured him about the administration's misplaced sympathy for wetlands.

Thanks to Tauzin and Livingston, who became chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Louisiana retained its purse power after the Republican takeover. And the delegation secured funding for several projects designed to extend Category 3 protection along the coast.

But there appeared to be no clamor for Category 5 protection. "Everyone knew we didn't build levees for worst-case scenarios," said Jim Smyth, a longtime planner in Corps headquarters. Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), who chairs the subcommittee that funds Corps projects, recalled similar silence on Capitol Hill.

"No member, nobody in the Corps, nobody in the administration, nobody in the press, nobody in Louisiana ever came to me and said, 'The sky is falling! Help!' " Hobson said.

W. Clifford Smith, a Louisiana appointee to the Mississippi River Commission, said the there would have been no point to a concerted push for enhanced levees. "We could hardly get funding out of Congress and, frankly, locally for Category 3," Smith said. "How would anybody listen if we wanted to double funding to get up to Category 5?"

In 1998, when Hurricane Georges veered just east of New Orleans, LSU professor Joe Suhayda, then also working at the Corps, urged his Corps bosses to push for stronger safeguards. Many residents had ignored calls to evacuate, and Suhayda argued that they would be sitting ducks without Category 4 or 5 protection. "They told me: 'We build levees. Evacuations are other people's job,' " Suhayda recalled.

Suhayda wanted to upgrade the city's defenses immediately. But he was advised to take his idea through the normal "stepwise process" -- find a local sponsor, seek what was known as a "reconnaissance" study, then perhaps a full feasibility study, and maybe start construction in a decade. "We knew this would drag out for years," Suhayda said, "but we figured that's the way it goes."

Around that time, federal officials showed Tauzin a simulation of a Category 4 storm leveling New Orleans. "This thing is real, and it is going to happen," they told him. Chastened, Tauzin jump-started that unwieldy stepwise process, pushing a study of Category 4 or 5 protection through Congress in 1999.

Tauzin also began to see the link between wetlands and security. His state was losing a football field worth of marshes every 45 minutes, and the Gulf was creeping closer to his constituents. Scientists now believed that every few miles of marsh could reduce storm surges by a foot, and Tauzin joined forces with an eclectic array of Louisiana politicians, Army engineers and interest groups behind a $14 billion plan to restore the ecosystem.

It was the largest environmental initiative in history, outstripping the $8 billion Corps project to revive the Everglades, and its support extended well beyond environmentalists. Shell Oil, worried about its offshore drilling platforms, put up several million dollars for a PR campaign to rebrand Louisiana's marshes as "America's Wetland." Gov. Mike Foster (R) declared a "holy war" against coastal erosion.

"We all came together around America's Wetland," Tauzin said. "That was the most coordination I ever saw."

Word was starting to spread about the vulnerability of New Orleans. Weatherwise magazine dubbed the city "The Death Valley of the Gulf Coast." A direct hit by a Category 4, Ted Steinberg wrote in his 2000 book "Acts of God," would "turn New Orleans into a huge lake 20 feet deep." Articles in Scientific American and the New Orleans Times-Picayune essentially forecast Katrina. And in his book "Bayou Farewell," Mike Tidwell conjured the image of a Category 4 flattening Louisiana cities "like a liquid bulldozer." Foster bought 1,500 copies of the book, sending one to President Bush, every member of Congress and every state legislator.

‘Penny-wise and pound-foolish’
But in recent years, Tauzin, Livingston and Breaux left Congress, and $14 billion became a tough sell. The Bush White House supported the idea of the project, but with deficits mounting, its budget office told the Corps and the Louisianans to scale back their request. The administration's last budget proposed $540 million for restoration over four years.

"White Houses past and present always seemed to be about money -- penny-wise and pound-foolish," said Sidney Coffee, the top restoration aide to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). "They kept telling us to prove our projects were justified. Do they think we've proved it now?" Coffee broke down in tears, then composed herself. "Excuse me if I sound strident, but what's the cost benefit of this disaster?"

Manmade hurricane defenses have not fared much better in the Bush era.

Bush has proposed cuts for the entire Corps, and when his appointee to oversee the agency complained publicly in 2002, Bush fired him. The rollbacks were a response to mounting criticism of economically dubious and ecologically destructive Corps projects, reinforced by withering reports by independent agencies. New Orleans hurricane defenses have felt the pinch as well.

For example, while Landrieu pushed for maximum funding for the Lake Pontchartrain project, $98.7 million over the past five years, the administration proposed $22.4 million and Congress agreed to $42.5 million. On the eve of Katrina, it was still a decade from completion, and the Corps could not even guarantee it would withstand a Category 3. "Continuing land loss and settlement of land in the project area may have impacted the ability of the project to withstand the design storm," the agency warned.

The study of Category 5 protection has languished, too. The first phase was completed in 2002, and the Corps recommended a five-year, $12 million feasibility study. But there has been no money to continue, so the study is on hold.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana delegation has continued to push for projects with much fewer life-or-death consequences. For example, after the Corps concluded that the cost of a New Iberia port-deepening project was more than three times the benefits, Landrieu tucked a provision into an emergency funding bill for Iraq that ordered the Corps to restructure its cost-benefit analysis.

The delegation asked for more money for hurricane protection, too, but it had become the boy who cried wolf. Everyone in Washington knew that the state was already teeming with levees and other Corps projects. No one wanted to hear the perennial winners of Washington's water resources game say that they had been losing all along.

But every now and then, they tried. On the eve of his departure from Congress in 2004, Tauzin, fighting intestinal cancer, took a break from chemotherapy to testify for the bill that would have started funding for the Louisiana coastal restoration project -- legislation that is still stalled, in part by Vitter's disputed logging provision. Tauzin raised the by-now-familiar New Orleans doomsday scenario, then threw aside his script.

"We'll be faced one day with thousands of our citizens drowned and killed, people drowned like rats in the city of New Orleans," he said. "Our paradise is about to be lost."

He continued: "You've been watching the 9/11 commission hearings, people . . . saying if only, if only we had talked to one another . . . if only. I'm telling you now, before this disaster, please don't let it happen in Louisiana. It won't be al Qaeda, it won't be some other enemy of this country. It will be Mother Nature . . . because we could have acted in time but we didn't.

"Please don't let's have a commission where all of us, red-faced, say we saw it coming and didn't do anything. Please don't let that happen."