"Politics: Louisiana's senior senator, whose brother is lieutenant governor and whose father was New Orleans' mayor, is blaming President Bush for "the staggering incompetence of the federal government." Come again?
It's understandable that on the Sept. 4 edition of ABC's "This Week," Mary Landrieu said of President Bush, "I might likely have to punch him — literally" if he or members of his administration made any more disparaging remarks about local authorities and their pre- and post-Katrina efforts. Some are and were family.
Brother Mitch Landrieu is lieutenant governor of Louisiana. Father "Moon" Landrieu was not only mayor of New Orleans, but also later became secretary of housing and urban development under President Carter.
If anyone had clout in Washington, it would be this family and this swing-state senator. She could easily have traded her vote on a key issue or nomination for needed funding, a common practice in Washington. If funding for levee repairs was less than adequate, she was in a position to get more.
Likewise, ex-Sen. John Breaux was arguably the most influential senator in Washington during the Clinton years, and could easily have gotten more funding, if nothing else, in an effort to break the growing GOP hold on the South.
But if all money ever asked for was appropriated, as Breaux himself has said, everyone knew that the levee system was designed for a Category 3 hurricane, and not for a "once every hundred years" storm that could put New Orleans under 20 feet of water. And the track record of how money that was appropriated was actually spent is not good.
Despite Landrieu's complaints of budget cuts and paltry funding, the fact is that over the five years of the Bush administration, Louisiana has received more money — $1.9 billion — for Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects than any other state, and more than under any other administration over a similar period. California is a distant second with less than $1.4 billion despite a population more than seven times as large.
In December 1995, the Orleans Levee Board actually boasted to the New Orleans Times-Picayune about all the federal money it had to protect the city from hurricanes. As a result, the board said, the "most ambitious flood-fighting plan in generations was drafted," one that would plug the "few manageable gaps" in the levee system.
The problem was at the local level. The ambitious plan fell apart when the state suspended the Levee Board's ability to refinance old bonds and issue new ones. As the Times-Picayune reported, Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle "repeatedly faulted the Levee Board for the way it awards contracts, spends money and ignores no-bid contract laws." Blocked by the state from raising local money, the federal matching funds went unspent.
By 1998, Louisiana's state government had a $2 billion construction budget, but less than one-tenth of one percent, or $1.98 million, was dedicated to New Orleans levee improvements. By contrast, $22 million was spent that year to renovate a home for the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Where did all the money go? Again, the Times-Picayune says much of the money went not to flood control, but to lawmakers' pet projects, from a $750 million for a new canal lock to a $2.5 million Mardi Gras fountain project that ran $600,000 over budget.
Nine months before Katrina, three top Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness officials were indicted by a federal grand jury in Shreveport and charged, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Louisiana, "with offenses related to the obstruction of an audit of the use of federal funds for flood mitigation opportunities throughout Louisiana."
No reason to wonder why. New Orleans is not called the Big Easy for nothing."