Now here’s an interesting verdict that doesn’t seem to get much press:
In a ruling that could leave the government open to billions of dollars in claims from Hurricane Katrina victims, a federal judge said late Wednesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had displayed “gross negligence” in failing to maintain a navigation channel — resulting in levee breaches that flooded large swaths of greater New Orleans.
“Gross negligence”? Hell, that’s what the Army Corp of Engineers does.
There is something comforting about the name “Army Corps of Engineers.” You are raised on stories of military achievement and the name imparts some kind of excellence. You imagine Seabees turning Pacific atolls into airports. You wouldn’t feel very safe entrusting public works to the “Post Office Corps of Engineers”, even though the Post Office is probably a lot more efficient at managing details than the Army.
The ACE thrives at the intersection of the political parties. The Republicans can never give enough money to the military, developers, and prime contractors; the Democrats don’t say no to organized labor and the building trades. Both parties love a showpiece project that they can advertise at home, especially if a lucky someone can get the project named after himself.
The ACE exists to build things. It is an answer in search of a question. It will build if it is helpful to build and it will build if it is unhelpful to build. Furthermore, the worse the project, the more attractive to ACE. If a project were truly compelling on its merits, a variety of agencies would jump up and down to take a crack, including private utilities and ports. If a project were merely moderate, it would be built once and moved on. To really feed at the public trough, the project needs to be able to drag on for an indeterminate period of time, to provide enough opportunity for all politically relevant people to eat their fill. And the project has to be poorly enough conceived that there will be a constant need for maintenance.
In the specific case of MR. GO, the Corps cut a shallow 37-mile path through the bayou that was so unpopular that before Katrina only a couple of boats a day even bothered to go down it. You might think that a group of engineers would oppose putting an extra body of water in the New Orleans area; the city is below sea level, after all. But who would have gained from not building it? As Lyndon Johnson is said to have asked in the days of Southern Democrat dominance, why not vote for public works, the North is paying for it anyway. Eventually, MR. GO managed to deteriorate without being touched, and with half a million dollars a mile of annual maintenance. That’s just about perfect for ACE.
People in New Orleans are justifiably angry that the ACE’s levees did not hold, and that even after Katrina the ACE did not find it important to build shielding to protect against a category 5.
What they should really be upset about is that this was the government’s policy. Gross negligence is when a decent idea turns out to have a major flaw.
The ACE is more akin to the nation’s energy policy. We like the idea of consuming so much – and are so frightened of gas taxes - that we send enormous wealth to the small Gulf states that supply our fix. Then we can’t figure out why we don’t have any money to provide decent social services, and why each guy who tries to provide them inevitably ends up trying to raise taxes.
ACE’s entire reason to be is to ignore the environment and build something that will appeal to a politican looking to employ people and mold the land to the benefit of his supporters. Negligent? As in, did not consider the situation and consequences? What has ACE ever done that was not negligent? That would be a shocking development worthy of investigation.