The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, September 09, 2005

A Penny Saved

Kevin Drum bemoans budget cuts related to Gulf Coast flood control:

Here's a timeline that outlines the fate of both FEMA and flood control projects in New Orleans under the Bush administration. Read it and weep.

I am going to skip over the parts related to reassignment of reporting lines, and focus on spending decisions. "Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests." [All non-block quotes are from Mr. Drum's timeline.]

Among emergency specialists, "mitigation"--the measures taken in advance to minimize the damage caused by natural disasters--is a crucial part of the strategy to save lives and cut recovery costs. But since 2001, key federal disaster mitigation programs, developed over many years, have been slashed and tossed aside. FEMA's Project Impact, a model mitigation program created by the Clinton administration, has been canceled outright. Federal funding of post-disaster mitigation efforts designed to protect people and property from the next disaster has been cut in half, and now, communities across the country must compete for pre-disaster mitigation dollars.
As a result, some state and local emergency managers say, it's become more difficult to get the equipment and funds they need to most effectively deal with disasters. In North Carolina, a state regularly damaged by hurricanes and floods, FEMA recently refused the state's request to buy backup generators for emergency support facilities. And the budget cuts have halved the funding for a mitigation program that saved an estimated $8.8 million in recovery costs in three eastern N.C. communities alone after 1999's Hurricane Floyd. In Louisiana, another state vulnerable to hurricanes, requests for flood mitigation funds were rejected by FEMA this summer.

I would like to point out that Florida and North Carolina are the focus of the mitigation funding in this article. If the lack of federal funds for Louisiana was considered outrageous, is the absence of funding for a boondoggle in North Carolina equally so? Another tidbit from the same article:

As the Cold War ended, FEMA turned greater attention to handling natural disasters, but the agency proved unequal to the task. In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew assaulted Florida and other Southern states with 170-mile-an-hour winds, killing 23 people and leaving a trail of devastation. The severity of the storm caught FEMA off-guard, and the agency did too little, too late to help the state recover, enraging thousands of storm victims.

Of course, everything was better in the Clinton years, as North Carolina's farmers will attest. Then, "June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed."

The Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2005 budget includes only $3.9 million for the east bank hurricane project. Congress likely will increase that amount, although last year it bumped up the administration's $3 million proposal only to $5.5 million.
"I needed $11 million this year, and I got $5.5 million," Naomi said. "I need $22.5 million next year to do everything that needs doing, and the first $4.5 million of that will go to pay four contractors who couldn't get paid this year."

Given that the levee which broke was one which had been repaired, this looks like $5.5 million, and hopefully more in 2005, saved that would have been wasted. But here, hindsight focused on New Orleans once again makes the savings look smaller than they really are. Unless Louisiana's politicians were singularly inept, we can expect that similar savings were realized all along the Gulf Coast and south Atlantic; who is now going to say that would have been money well spent?

Mr. Drum then descends to Dowdification: "June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created after the May 1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes." Going to the source, we see:

In fiscal year 2006, the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bracing for a record $71.2 million reduction in federal funding.
It would be the largest single-year funding loss ever for the New Orleans district, Corps officials said.

That's right, these destructive funding cuts hadn't even happened yet.

To generalize: to criticize the lack of spending on New Orleans, one must advocate greater spending for every locality at risk from any disaster. Any other sort of criticism is simply an attempt to look clever with the benefit of hindsight.