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Our Army Corps of Engineers Problem

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As Michael Grunwald observes, Katrina was a man-made disaster, and there are likely to be more where that came from:

In his speech today in New Orleans for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Obama described the storm as a natural event that became a manmade disaster, thanks to a sluggish government response to a city with rampant economic inequality.

It was a manmade disaster, all right. But the government wasn’t just slow to respond to the tragedy. It directly created the tragedy. New Orleans wasn’t drowned by poverty or climate change or the laggards at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It was drowned by bad government engineering and bad government priorities about water resources. If its floodwalls hadn’t collapsed, FEMA’s tardiness wouldn’t have been such a big deal.

A decade later, the engineering problems have been addressed with a new state-of-the-art flood protection system around the city, and the Big Easy is much safer. The president was right to highlight the city’s impressive physical and economic recovery today, as well as the persistent challenges faced by low-income African-Americans in the Lower Ninth Ward where he spoke. But it should not be forgotten that Washington’s skewed priorities left the Lower Ninth underwater—and those priorities are still out of whack.

The United States still has a dysfunctional water resources agency, the same Army Corps of Engineers whose mistakes helped kill more than 1,800 Americans ten years ago, and no real water resources policy beyond the whims of the politically savvy Army Corps and its doting patrons in Congress. So while New Orleans is better prepared for a Katrina-type storm, the nation remains vulnerable to Katrina-type failures.

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