August 18, 2007

A Meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers

At a meeting last Thursday in Lakeview, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials updated residents on the status of projects west of the Industrial Canal.

Around 9pm, about two hours after the meeting started, Col. Jeff Bedey walked in the room at St. Paul’s Episcopal, and removed his beret. Where his black cap had pressed against his skin, a deeply set, slightly red indention formed a crown around his head.

He walked around silently, looking for a place to stand and trying not to interrupt a Lakeview resident who was speaking as he entered. As Commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, his place was at the front of the room, and he took that place when the resident was finished.

Without a microphone, he addressed the room. He explained that he came two hours after the meeting started because he was attending a similar meeting in New Orleans East. He thanked those in attendance for being there even though they did not have to be there, noting that the USACE staff were the only ones in the room that had to be there.

The sense I had gotten from the residents in attendance was that they felt they had to be there. They felt they had no choice.

Col. Bedey explained that this was part of the USACE’s mission to engage the public – the “stakeholders” – in decisions that affected them.

The first raised hand that Bedey called on addressed this mission directly and bluntly. The Lakeview resident said, “With all due respect. You have failed in your mission.”

By that time, I had already realized that I was an outsider at that meeting. Not because I don’t live on the East Bank west of the Industrial Canal, though.

I came there for an update on the levees. These residents didn’t come for an update. They didn’t come to be informed about decisions that had been made already. They came because they wanted to be a part of the decisions that were going to affect them. They have a stake, and they wanted to have a say.

Up until that point in the meeting, they hadn’t felt like they had any say in what the federal government was going to do to their neighborhoods.

The problem was a report set to go to Congress on August 26, 2007, ten days after the meeting. Congress directed the USACE to develop a report analyzing three alternatives to providing flood protection with the outfall canals:
Sec. 4303. The Chief of Engineers shall investigate the overall technical advantages, disadvantages and operational effectiveness of operating the new pumping stations at the mouths of the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue and London Avenue canals in the New Orleans area directed for construction in Public Law 109-234 concurrently or in series with existing pumping stations serving these canals and the advantages, disadvantages and technical operational effectiveness of removing the existing pumping stations and configuring the new pumping stations and associated canals to handle all needed discharges to the lakefront or in combination with discharges directly to the Mississippi River in Jefferson Parish; and the advantages, disadvantages and technical operational effectiveness of replacing or improving the floodwalls and levees adjacent to the three outfall canals: Provided, That the analysis should be conducted at Federal expense: Provided further, <> That the analysis shall be completed and furnished to the Congress not later than three months after enactment of this Act.
The three alternatives being considered:
1) Pumping stations at the Lake and keep existing pumping stations
2) Pumping stations at the Lake, remove existing pumping stations, and use gravitational drainage
3) Improving the floodwalls (parallel protection)
Only option number three would not require the temporary pumping stations at the lake not becoming permanent. The USACE also proposed replacing the open canals with a pressurized box culvert system.

Where did these alternatives come from? Col. Bedey explained how we got here.

Before the storm, the USACE had floodwalls on the outfall canals, and thought they worked. Then, Katrina came. They didn’t work. Two canals had breaches in three areas of the floodwalls.

The federal government worked hard and fast to make sure the area was protected from future storms in the short term. The USACE built the interim closure structures and temporary pumps to protect the city from storm surge coming from Lake Pontchartrain.

In the middle of this charge, Congress directed the USACE to rebuild the entire levee system to protect against a 100 year storm and evaluate how to achieve higher protection.

It all happened so fast, Col. Bedey says, they are “playing catch up with the technical analysis.”

The “fifth supplemental” appropriations bill asked for the report on the three alternatives with “coordinated efforts with academia and stakeholders,” as one slide said. And the USACE was standing in front of the stakeholders that night.

But the stakeholders couldn’t understand why the advantages and disadvantages of three options they had just been informed of would be presented to Congress only 10 days from the first time they ever heard they even had any options. One resident said, “We need to see the options you are giving us from which someone else will choose the best one.”

USACE officials before Col. Bedey arrived had stressed, “This is not a plan.” It’s just the advantages and disadvantages of various options, implying that the report was not of critical importance and that all options were still on the table.

Also, a website had been set up to receive comments on UASCE projects for environmental reports (NEPA requirements) that would be used before a plan was finalized in April 2008. An official 30-day comment period would begin for each project in the area, though residents could leave comments on the website any time.

A slide in the presentation showed the official comment period for IER 5, the outfall canals project, started 2/29/08. When the 30-day official comment period ends, it would be April 2008 – the estimated date for the final decision. To the residents, that did not leave much time for officials to consider their concerns.

“Your timeline is a little different from a homeowner’s time frame,” one resident said to the USACE officials from the back of the room.

One fear that the residents consistently expressed was that decisions had been already made and this discussion was merely “window dressing.” Before Col. Bedey arrived, the USACE officials present did not directly answer the question of which option the USACE felt had the most advantages and least disadvantages. When asked the same question, Col. Bedey straightforwardly stated they gave higher priority to the gravitational flow to the pumping stations at the lake. Option 2.

Now, here’s where I need to point out something that I learned at the meeting, and I am embarrassed that I didn’t know it. Many people who live by the Lake don’t want those big pumping stations in their neighborhoods. I thought it was a done deal that we would keep the closure structures and build permanent pumping stations.

I think the residents there that night also thought it was a done deal, contrary to the USACE’s protestations to the contrary, which fueled their opposition and mistrust of the USACE’s intentions. That mistrust continued until the last question, with murmurs of disapproval all around, not loud enough to disrupt the meeting, but loud enough to be heard and most likely agreed upon by the residents present.

The only point resolved by the end of the meeting was that Col. Bedey gave his word to meet with every neighborhood association leader who wanted to meet with him in his office. And one neighborhood leader commented that Col. Bedey’s word was the only person’s word he trusted, a comment that was backed by another leader who knew Col. Bedey personally and vouched for his honesty.

And that's how the meeting ended. With a promise made to listen, and a hope that a community's voice might be heard when that promise is kept.

[EDIT: Some spelling errors corrected]

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