New Orleans: The Corps Defends the Future

NEW ORLEANS--I'm preparing to make a documentary film on the causes of the flooding of New Orleans, and where the city goes from here, and so I decided to attend one of the community outreach meetings the Corps of Engineers holds, and advertises in the local paper.  So I found myself last night in a church auditorium in the Upper Ninth Ward, the audience about half full of folks, young and old, black and white, waiting for the chance to question reps from the Corps.

The meeting started with about a ten-minute "here's what we're doing, and here's what we're going to do tonight," explaining that the main focus of the meeting were two floodgate projects, but that questions would be entertained on any subject to do with the system.  The system, by the way, has had a name change: It's no longer the "hurricane protection system"--that didn't work out so well--it's now the hurricane and storm damage risk reduction system.  They even showed a PowerPoint slide emphasizing "residual risk"--i.e., don't blame us next time.

Then came a fifteen-minute video showing the construction process for both projects.  This stuff was so good, a woman sitting behind me, when she asked a question, said, "That was like Pixar."  Both she and I asked the same question: how much did it cost?  The Corps reps wrote down the question, though they didn't know the answer. 

Some money quotes from the session: although many commenters to my posts insist that "the Corps only does what Congress tells them to do," one of the Corps reps (Ron. sorry, didn't get a last name) described the post-Katrina process a little more honestly, if opaquely: "We were helping Congress develop language".  Later, boasting of the level of protection the Corps is promoting (despite residual risk) by June 2011, he said: "You're not gonna see floodwalls collapsing, you're not gonna see levees failing."  Does that mean those things won't happen, or they'll happen out of our sight, or...?

Most interesting, given the drastic criticisms of the Corps' old system in the ILIT and Team Louisiana reports, Ron said of the Corps' critics: "Once they went through the forensics, trust me, a very large portion of the engineering community agrees with our approach."

Me personally, if I were running the Corps' outreach meetings in New Orleans, I wouldn't have one of its spokespeople ever use the phrase "trust me."  The audience was politely silent, but it's still a punch line.