The Slow Drowning of New Orleans
At the junction of the Mississippi and the Gulf, a city long knew that a powerful hurricane was inevitable. As
development robbed the region of natural defenses, man's fight to hold back nature would ultimately fail.
By Michael Grunwald and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 9, 2005; A01
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 man-made 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