Gov't Weighs How Much to Spend on Levees


Associated Press Writer,0,3280451.story?coll=sns-newsnation-headlines

March 31, 2006, 6:29 AM EST

WASHINGTON -- With a limited role in helping New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina's wrath, the federal government is weighing how much it should spend to improve levees there, the Bush administration's recovery coordinator says.

Levees need to be raised higher and made stronger, and as much as $5.9 billion more for work on the structures may need to be approved before widespread rebuilding begins, Don Powell, the White House's point man on Gulf Coast recovery efforts, said Thursday.

The additional $5.9 billion would come on top of $108 billion the White House has requested in aid -- including $3.5 billion to repair and strengthen levees battered by the storm.

The Army Corps of Engineers is requiring the levee improvements as part of a certification process that is necessary for drawing new city flood maps. In turn, those maps will determine insurance rates. Without the flood maps, many homeowners and businesses have been reluctant to rebuild.

It's unclear how much Washington will agree to pay for the improvements.

"We haven't decided what to ask for," Powell said. That decision and the release of new flood maps probably would happen in a "relatively short period of time -- in a matter of days," he said.

Louisiana lawmakers were infuriated by the call for additional funding, saying they fear the levees won't be ready to protect New Orleans by the June 1 start of the 2006 hurricane season.

"This is enormously frustrating to me," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La. "I've been telling them since last November that they've sought way too little money for essential levee work, and this finally confirms that. Only it comes after months of stonewalling, with the new hurricane season right around the corner."

In Baton Rouge, La., Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, called the new costs "an outrage" and demanded that Congress come up with the money.

Without the additional cash, Blanco said, some of the hardest-hit areas probably wouldn't receive the levee repairs needed to give them the protection they had before Katrina.

"Obviously all sections will not be secure," she said.

But Powell said all levees will be rebuilt at least to pre-Katrina levels, and perhaps even stronger, by June 1.

"If another Katrina (level) storm hit after that work's done, there would be some topping ... but the flooding would be all manageable," Powell said. "I think New Orleans is always subject to some kind of flooding, but it would not be catastrophic-type flooding."

Overall, the city's rebirth could take up to a quarter-century to complete, he said.

"We kind of want it to happen overnight, or I do, but it's going to take some time," he said. "This could be five to 25 years for it all to fit into place."

Luring homeowners and businesses back to the hurricane-ravaged city, he said, "depends on a lot of factors that, I think, are out of our control."

Issues about housing, public safety and private investment are largely being decided by local authorities who Powell said "will be in control of their destiny."

In a conference call with reporters, Army Corps Maj. Gen. Don Riley said the new costs are the result of ongoing repairs and studies of the levees.

Associated Press writers Brett Martel in New Orleans and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge contributed to this story.