Corps tests hurricane protection system _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--London Avenue Canal Team Member Bill Crosby closes canal gates while pumps force out water at the London Ave. Canal during the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' hurricane and storm damage risk reduction system emergency preparedness and response exercises in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, May 20, 2015.. Throughout the day, emergency teams operated a number of the systemÕs structures in response to prearranged tropical weather scenarios.

WASHINGTON — There may be no better example of flaws in the Corps of Engineers "piecemeal" approach to funding flood and other severe weather prevention projects than the hurricane protection system around the city of New Orleans, Louisiana's coastal chief told a panel of U.S. senators on Wednesday.

The project was initially authorized in the 1950s but was still not completed when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority chairman Chip Kline told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“Thousands of people lost their lives, livelihoods were destroyed because of that piecemeal approach," Kline testified. “If full funding was appropriated on the front end, you and I would probably not be having this conversation right now."

“The process by which the federal government funds these projects is flawed," Kline added.

Kline was invited to the hearing as part of a panel to provide insight into the $4.8 billion Army Civil Works program, how the federal government can better work with states and local communities and how more consistent funding from Congress could impact mitigation projects moving forward.

“Congress seems to give the Corps more work to do than resources,” said Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who is the ranking member of the committee. “Then a storm hits and the federal government has to spend large amounts of money over and over again.”

Neither of Louisiana's U.S. senators is on the committee, but the state is all-too-familiar with the cycle Carper described.

Officials broke ground on the Corps-backed Comite River Diversion Canal last month after more than 30 years of planning. Catastrophic flooding in the region in 2016 prompted an aggressive push to get the project completed.

"Louisiana is a flood-prone state. We recognize this," Kline said in his opening remarks. "Louisiana is also home to vitally important assets and resources that provide value not just to the Gulf Coast, but to the entire nation."

R.D. James became assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works about 15 months ago.

“Since I received my assignment, I’ve had one mission: Move dirt," he told the committee. “The intention is to start, continue and finish projects in a more timely and efficient way to ensure a better return on the taxpayers’ investment and better the lives of Americans.”

It's unclear what changes could be in store for the Corps as Congress evaluates the program. 

Several regions of the United States have experienced record flooding in recent years. The National Weather Service has recorded 43-flood-related deaths in 2019 alone, including three in Louisiana.

“This year’s flood season has challenged many federal and state agencies and local communities across the nation," James said. 

Carper said he would like to see a "more holistic" approach to mitigation and resiliency projects, which are often determined on a cost-benefit ratio that doesn't factor in impact on smaller and more rural communities, he noted.

"Climate change does impact blue states and red states alike," he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.