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Time for Vitter to provide leadership on Katrina aftermath

At least Sen. David Vitter was half-correct when he testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Disaster Prevention and Prediction. What happened in and around the New Orleans area was preventable to a certain degree, and if we limited the scope of inquiry just to that topic, what the federal government could have done to prevent the flooding from breached levees, he would be totally correct.

But Vitter misspoke when he testified “data predicting that the levees on Lake Pontchartrain would be topped a full 36 hours in advance of the storm.” The prediction was wrong, in retrospect, for evidence now is that shoddy construction explains the breaks; these levees were not overtopped. On the lake, evidence shows there was no overtopping; any lake-driven breaches came through structural failures while the levees along the lake itself held without being overtopped.

This does not mean that better levees should not have been in place, given the huge sums allocated to entities such as the Orleans Levee District that could have been used for flood protection. At the same time, it does bring up the question about why other levees, particularly those along the Industrial Canal that actually did get overtopped, did fail.

Here, Vitter himself rests on shaky ground. Having been a U.S. representative for several terms in the affected area before Hurricane Katrina, it is clear that he did not push vigorously for projects that explicitly would have strengthened all levees. Instead, he lent his support to things like the inefficient new Industrial Canal lock. In addition, while Vitter has been a vocal spokesman for coastal restoration efforts, even if we turned the clock forward a number of years and these were in place, they would have done little to reduce the destructive force of Katrina.

At this point in time, especially since the state’s senior senator Mary Landrieu has destroyed her credibility on the issue, Vitter could be the most effective force Louisiana has to secure funding for rebuilding the New Orleans area and to gain further federal resources for hurricane protection, perhaps even to bail the state out on a budgetary shortfall. But to do so, to retain his own credibility, he must not present himself as if he were a kind of Cassandra trying to alert all about the dangers of hurricanes. He must admit what he demonstrated by his budgetary actions, that he could not quite get the necessary funding to where it should have gone.

At this point, a public skeptical of elected officials’ reactions to the storm would welcome one who admits he should have pushed harder for certain outcomes and that he is not going to assign blame for partisan purposes (unlike Landrieu’s rhetoric). This would strengthen his position of calling for an independent commission to track incoming federal money for reconstruction purposes and encourage a potentially reticent Congress to provide more money if necessary.

Given a Louisiana public soured on politicians’ credibility over Katrina, Vitter would demonstrate strong and necessary leadership by adopting this course of action.

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