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Corps racing against time, red tape
Many key projects haven't even started
Monday, August 14, 2006
By Sheila Grissett

Six months after the Army Corps of Engineers was given about a billion dollars to raise sinking levees and rush unfinished hurricane protection and flood prevention projects to completion by September 2007, none of that construction has started anywhere in the metropolitan New Orleans area.

Corps managers say the scale and complexity of decision-making, problem-solving and documentation involved with spending this kind of money -- it's only part of the $5.7 billion Congress has provided since Hurricane Katrina -- is taking longer than many had anticipated.

"We are poised to do $6 billion worth of work in an environment no one has ever been in before, and we have a lot of good people working unbelievably hard to make it happen," said Task Force Hope chief Dan Hitchings, the corps' civilian overseer of post-Katrina repairs and upgrades. "But we've had to come up with new rules to do it because the old ones were based on our normal processes -- and this isn't normal."

Though corps officials aren't satisfied that construction has not started on any of the projects that ostensibly must be complete in 11 months, the goal still is in reach, Hitchings said last week.

"I don't have any indication that we won't meet the September '07 date," he said. "I'm not alarmed at this point, but we're always concerned. It will be a challenge, just like it was for Task Force Guardian."

Guardian was the corps' task force mobilized to repair all damage done by the Aug. 29, 2005, storm before this year's hurricane season opened 10 months later. And but for a few notable exceptions -- including problem-riddled construction of floodgates on outfall canals in New Orleans -- Guardian met that June 1 goal.

Some corps managers had optimistically predicted that the first batch of new construction contracts would be issued last spring, but the agency is barred by federal law from awarding contracts until specific legal documents are signed. And that hasn't occurred yet.

Speeding things up

"I'm not going to tell you that we're happy with how long it's taking us," said Jim Ward, deputy director of Task Force Hope since its inception in the days after Katrina. "But we are trying to better streamline the system, and we have done a lot of that already."

Corps commanders have waived multiple internal regulations and policies, making it possible, Hitchings said, to accomplish in months what otherwise takes years.

"Do we want it to go still faster? Yes, of course, and we're working to make that happen," he said.

Despite paperwork-cutting changes to date, the corps only recently finished compiling and distributing the contracts and, in most cases, amendments to existing contracts, that it must enter with local governments and levee boards before construction work can begin.

Representatives of the corps and those local entities are now negotiating sticking points -- and there are some significant ones -- over terms of the Project Cooperation Agreements, or PCAs, that spell out the work to be done and the duties of all parties, and are required by federal law.

In the past, it sometimes has taken a year or longer to get a cooperative agreement approved. Delays that lengthy aren't expected with Katrina money on the line, but none of the 18 PCAs, or amendments to existing PCAs, has been signed yet.

The West Jefferson Levee District's executive director, Jerry Spohrer, said he is "extremely disappointed" his agency has just recently received its proposed PCA amendment.

West Jefferson is without a completed federal hurricane protection system and generally is considered to be the most at-risk densely populated area in the region.

"They have taken over six months to release the proposed amendment and now expect (us) to resolve (our) concerns in just a few days," he said. "We feel as if flood protection for citizens living and working on the West Bank is being held hostage by the corps."

Corps employees report doing so much advance work that once signed, some ready-to-go contracts could be awarded in a matter of weeks. Still other projects are being designed or redesigned to increase safety, incorporating hard lessons learned from Katrina.

But the redesigns couldn't start until improved criteria were available from an engineering assessment of the entire system and forensic investigations into Katrina failures, and those didn't wrap up until May and early June.

'An ambitious goal'

At the corps' district headquarters in New Orleans, the agency has organized and staffed two new offices to provide the human resources needed to organize and oversee spending the $5.7 billion in federal money awarded since Katrina, including the $1 billion to raise levees and accelerate hurricane protection and flood control specified in Congress's third supplemental spending bill on Dec. 22. The corps received that money in February.

"Task Force Guardian proved that the corps could do things faster, but Guardian had a lot of authority to cut the red tape," said Michael Stack, newly appointed New Orleans administrator of the state Department of Transportation and Development, which provides engineering services to southeast Louisiana levee districts. Stack previously was the transportation department engineer who advised those districts and passed judgment on corps hurricane protection projects.

"Before Katrina, the corps was very slow and cumbersome, and now they're somewhere in between, but leaning more toward the Guardian way of getting things done," Stack said. Advertisement

"The people here are really trying, but they're so handcuffed by procedural issues that it's still a problem," he said. "It's better, but September of '07? That's an ambitious goal to meet."

Guardian rebuilt or repaired more than 200 miles of the region's 360 miles of federal hurricane protection system, and its paperwork was done in about two months.

That was a great feat, say Hitchings and other corps managers, but it is proving more difficult to prepare to spend third supplemental allocation for myriad reasons.

'A voyage of discovery'

Though most of Guardian's work entailed rebuilding replicas of damaged structures within their original footprints, some of the redesigned third supplemental projects are more complicated, will require acquiring more land, and must undergo environmental assessments -- albeit streamlined ones.

"Some of the traditional legwork was already done for third money, but not all of it," said John Meador, who left his post at corps headquarters in Washington to replace Ward in New Orleans last week.

"And the fourth supplemental will be even more difficult because there's no documentation, no designs at all. We're starting from ground zero," Meador said.

That $3.7 billion allocated in June will finance construction of major new structures, including permanent pump stations on Lake Pontchartrain and navigable closures to protect the Industrial Canal.

"We're making no excuses. We want what everyone in New Orleans wants: to do the work quickly and correctly," Ward said on his last day as the task force's No. 2 man. "But this is unprecedented, and we're having to work it out as we go.

"It's been a voyage of discovery . . . and because the fourth supplemental (process) will be even harder to get through, that's all the more reason to get things better streamlined."

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Sheila Grissett can be reached at or (504) 717-7700.