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MR-GO or not to go: that is the porkbusting question

As more is discovered about how New Orleans’ levees were breached by Hurricane Katrina, the more human error induced by political concerns seems to be the cause – and politics may keep us from realizing the proper solution to deal with the catastrophe’s effects.

Previous to the storm, some experts had argued the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet would amplify a storm surge to amplify its speed and thus scouring power. The outlet serves as shortcut to New Orleans’ port facilities by cutting through the now-disastrously flooded St. Bernard Parish. Evidence is mounting that precisely this happened and triggered the flooding.

Even though policy-makers knew of this scenario, MR-GO was kept open because of the inattention of some and the forceful lobbying by the Port of New Orleans. It appears the Port used MR-GO as a blackmail item of sorts, arguing that since the Industrial Canal couldn’t handle larger vessels, MR-GO had to be there to do that (never mind the Mississippi itself can handle any sized vessel). This gave the Port a rationale to support the Industrial Canal lock project that could supplant the need to use MR-GO when finished.

However, MR-GO itself now faces large cleanup costs before it can be restored fully to service as well. And, the steadily-decreasing usage of the Canal has brought the lock project the richly-deserved title of boondoogle set to cost taxpayers at least three-quarters of a billion dollars. The problem was, some hefty political sponsors showed no inclination to abandon the project.

Now at least some may be jumping ship on support of keeping MR-GO open. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who has used political muscle in the past to ensure funding of dubious projects, has expressed sympathy to St. Bernard’s longstanding quest to close MR-GO, and former lock supporter Sen. David Vitter has explicitly stated the MR-GO needs to be closed. Only Rep. William Jefferson took a moment to raise his head to announce support of it remaining open, then ducked back down as his own ethics are questioned.

Whether this translates into abandonment of the lock project remains an open question. The Port continues to insist of linkage between the two, talking up the size issue. But, again, that is not a real problem because the largest vessels can use the Mississippi itself (and it would be far cheaper to build facilities on this channel than it would be to try to make a channel – the Industrial Canal – fit any existing facilities).

By continuing to link the two, saying MR-GO must stay open until the lock project’s estimated finish date of 2017, at current costs federal taxpayers would cough up almost $1 billion over that period – money that would be far better spent on other reconstruction activities around New Orleans. (And Rep. Charlie Melancon’s idea to install an expensive floodgate does not solve the pork-laden nature of MR-GO’s operation or of the lock project).

At least mistakes made here were in policy, not from sheer incompetence and bureaucratic confusion. The latter is emerging as an explanation for the failure of the 17th Street Canal in Orleans. Investigators now see strong evidence for poor maintenance practices as creating conditions to weaken the levees, exacerbated by confusing, overlapping governing authorities.

Naturally, the Orleans Levee District, which spends more resources on things other than flood control and whose chairman spends his time working on raises for himself, using taxpayer funds to unsuccessfully attack critics, and negotiating post-catastrophe sweetheart deals, would have to be the government agency responsible for maintenance. Just as naturally, one of its board’s members denies it, but given the record of this abysmal government’s actions, it’s hard not to believe the experts, and serves as just another reason why the whole politicized mess should be abolished in the course of an entire reconceptualization about how flood control should work around New Orleans.

But it will take strong political will both to accomplish this and to bust the pork considerations surrounding MR-GO.

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