Army Corps:

Washington Post's Grunwald criticizes Congress' relationship with Army Corps

Nine months after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took responsibility for the failure of New Orleans' levee system. During the same period, the Army Corps finished rebuilding the city's floodwalls in preparation for the 2006 hurricane season. On today's OnPoint, Washington Post writer and author of "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise," Michael Grunwald, discusses the Army Corps' "massive screw-up" in New Orleans. Grunwald also talks about his book, "The Swamp," and discusses how the Everglades may play into the 2006 midterm elections.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Michael Grunwald of the Washington Post and author of the new book "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise." Michael thanks for joining me today.

Michael Grunwald: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: We'll talk about the book in a moment, but I first wanted to talk to you about New Orleans and the work that the Army Corps of Engineers has done there. They recently admitted fault for the Katrina flooding.

Michael Grunwald: Finally.

Monica Trauzzi: And this is something that you cover extensively for the Post. Did the mea culpa come as a surprise to you?

Michael Grunwald: No, the Army Corps, generally, they sort of say it's premature, it's premature, it's premature. And then after people have almost forgotten they say, oh yeah, it's old news. So it was really obvious to many of us, very shortly after Katrina, that this was a massive screw up by the Army Corps and eventually they were going to have to knowledge that.

Monica Trauzzi: And they've rebuilt those flood walls, but many of the residents of New Orleans are skeptical about the integrity of those walls. How good are they? And how have they reworked the original design?

Michael Grunwald: Well, nobody knows. Nobody knows how good they'd be. I'd be scared too if I was living in New Orleans. They certainly have not really upgraded the designs. These were widely considered inadequate before Katrina. It turned out to be correct that they were inadequate. And now they've been rebuilt to essentially the same standards, the pre-Katrina standard. That's all that's authorized. So there's really no sense that people will be any safer than they were before the storm hit.

Monica Trauzzi: In your pieces in the Post you comment about the relationship that the corps has with Congress. How does Congress typically act towards the corps?

Michael Grunwald: Well the corps is their toy. You hear a lot about earmarks these days in Washington, well almost all of the Army Corps budget is earmarks. They're pet projects stuck in by individual congressmen. The Army Corps, miraculously, whenever there's a popular project that a congressman really wants, or a powerful congressman, the corps endorses it and it gets authorized. And the result is that you have the corps building these preposterous boondoggles like the New Orleans Industrial Canal. They're spending $800 million on a project that corps economists had said was ridiculous and that had nothing to do with flood control. And it was right next to some of these levees that collapsed during Katrina. They were also continuing to maintain the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, spending a lot of money dredging out let the ships weren't even using. Everybody knew was pretty much useless for navigation. And ended up -- it was a hurricane storm surge highway during Katrina. The models now suggests that it may have amplified surge by as much as 2 feet, so that's another way that the corps contributed to the disaster.

Monica Trauzzi: How do you think Congress should be dealing with the corps? I mean WRDA might hit the Senate floor late this month. So is that a step in the right direction?

Michael Grunwald: Well, it seems like more of the same. It's another $14 billion worth of Army Corps projects, not including the, you know, who knows how much they're going to spend on new levies in Louisiana. So I don't think there's much of a sense that there's going to be a lot of what people call corps reform. There was a corps reform caucus formed in 2000. I think there are now about 11 members out of the 535 in Congress. People would like to see some independent review of large Army Corps projects. People would like to see a little bit of a better cost benefit analysis. But there doesn't seem to be a lot of momentum in that direction.

Monica Trauzzi: In your writing you talk about some internal management issues that the corps has. What are some of these internal issues?

Michael Grunwald: Well, when I was covering the corps in 2000 I wrote a lot about the way they were cooking the books of their economic studies to justify these environmentally destructive and economically ridiculous projects. And that seemed to be the major problem, essentially from planning, these leaders who wanted the corps to get to yes, who were urging their commanders to get creative with economic studies. And it's not really clear whether that's been fixed.

Monica Trauzzi: So what you see as the ideal way to rework the corps?

Michael Grunwald: Well, I'm not really in the recommendation business. But I mean I think it's pretty clear that I've been critical of the corps, so the idea that there should be some sort of independent review seems to make a lot of sense. Essentially the problem with the current system of earmarks and these pet projects is that there's no prioritization. There's nobody saying you know what, we don't need an industrial canal lock that's going to cost $800 million and isn't actually going to help promote economic development in the New Orleans area. But really we do need better levies to protect the half a million people who live in New Orleans. There's really no way for the corps or anyone in Congress really to make those kinds of choices. So ideally there would be some way to kind of set priorities. The Bush administration has tried and the Bush administration has zeroed out most of the more controversial corps projects, but they haven't had a lot of support.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk about your book "The Swamp." It focuses on the history of the Everglades. And you talk a lot about the changes in South Florida that have affected the Everglades. The Army Corps of Engineers, you say in the book, initially damaged the Everglades. And now they're coming back and trying to restore them. Explain this relationship.

Michael Grunwald: Sure, well it's a similar kind of situation like you see in New Orleans, where Army Corps levies helped protect people in New Orleans and St. Louis and other places. But they also ended up withering the coastal wetlands that used to provide natural hurricane protection for the city of New Orleans. It was the same situation in South Florida, where the Army Corps was brought in because there was a horrible flood control problem after the 1928 hurricane, which is very much like Katrina. A dike busted around Lake Okeechobee and killed 2,500 people in the Everglades. So the Army Corps was brought in to build a better dike around the lake and ultimately to build a flood control project that's 2000 miles of levies and canals. It's made it possible to have 7 million people and 50 million annual tourists in central and southern Florida. It's made it possible to have this great suburban megalopolis that people call paradise. The problem is it's had this unbelievably devastating environmental effect where half of the Everglades are gone. It's been drained and paved for agriculture and development. And the other half is an ecological mess. It's been dammed and diverted by levies and canals and highways. And it's been polluted by sugar fields and suburbs that have been created by these projects. So now you have the Army Corps in charge of the largest environmental project in the history of the planet to try to restore some of the damage that's been done there. To me it's really the ultimate test to sustainable development. My book as the story about man's relationship with nature and sort of how it was an abusive relationship and now we're trying to make amends.

Monica Trauzzi: You covered the corps for years, so why is this story, this issue, the issue with the Everglades so important to you? You've written a book about it, so clearly it's important to you.

Michael Grunwald: Well, I think this Everglades project, for one thing, it's already the blueprint for ecosystem restoration around the country and around the world. You know they're watching it in the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Louisiana's coastal wetlands, where they want to spend $14 billion. I spoke to the guy who's in charge of restoring the Garden of Eden marshes that Saddam Hussein destroyed in southern Iraq. And he says that the Everglades is his model. So you can see that if you get the Everglades right, that the 21st century can be sort of a new era where we're going to fix some of the mistakes that we've made in the past, often well-intentioned mistakes. On the other hand, if you don't get the Everglades right, where you have 3 million acres already in the public domain, where you get plenty of rain, where you've got plenty of money and you've got this unbelievable political support from right wingers and left wingers and buffalo wingers and everyone in between, you have to ask if you can't save the Everglades, what can you save?

Monica Trauzzi: And you talk a lot about this restoration effort for the Everglades. Billions of dollars will need to be spent and we might not see the benefits for a couple of decades. And the population of South Florida certainly isn't going down. So can the Everglades really ever be restored?

Michael Grunwald: Well, you can't exactly restore it. That would be like restoring the omelet that you ate for breakfast to its egg, right? But there's a lot that you can do to restore natural processes. And they're going to try. Unfortunately, I write about an Army Corps memo where they say, you know, we're already five years into this project. We're way over budget. We're way behind schedule and this isn't restoration at all. There are a lot of complaints about the current restoration plan that the Army Corps has put together. I mean they're not the Corps of Biologists. And while the plan is legally required to provide and that water supply for South Florida to double its population there are no requirements for growth management or water conservation. And the current plan provides a lot of swift and sure economic benefits for Florida's development industry, its rock miners, its sugar farmers as well as its real estate people. But it's not exactly clear what it's going to provide for the Everglades. Those benefits are delayed for decades and they're highly uncertain. It depends on a lot of very questionable technologies that even the water managers at the Corps and the Water Management District in Florida are already losing faith. And there doesn't seem to be a plan B.

Monica Trauzzi: In the book you also talk about the politics associated with the Everglades. How do you think the Everglades issue will play into the 2006 midterm election?

Michael Grunwald: You know I start my book on Dec. 11, 2000, which was the day that President Clinton signed the Everglades Restoration Plan into law. And Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, was standing right by his side. And this wasn't just any day. This was the day that Bush v. Gore was being argued down the street at the Supreme Court. So here you had, Florida's political swamp was tearing the country apart along partisan lines. But Florida's actual swamp was bringing Republicans and Democrats together. The election years are good for the Everglades because there's always a competition. Who can do the most to save the Everglades? In 2000 the reason the Everglades got that $8 billion was because Clay Shaw, a Republican from Fort Lauderdale, was in a tight race. So in general you haven't seen a lot of arguing between the parties over Everglades plans. What you have is the sort of healthy competition, where everybody is trying to do more to show that they're the saviors of the Everglades.

Monica Trauzzi: OK. We are out of time. Thanks for being here.

Michael Grunwald: Thanks so much for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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