Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008 | 2:10 a.m.
If members of the Army Corps of Engineers assigned to duty in New Orleans are still high-fiving one another three days after Hurricane Gustav pounded the city, who can blame them?
Even though the hurricane’s ferocity at landfall registered “only” at the Category 2 level — forecasters had warned it could reach Category 4 — the fact that no major flooding occurred signifies a triumph, at least for now, of the corps over nature.
A low point for the corps came in June 2006 when it accepted a majority of the blame for New Orleans’ devastation three years ago after Hurricane Katrina.
The corps admitted its original designs for the city’s 350-mile hurricane protection system were flawed, and that it had not properly maintained the system.
In contrast to this admission, the corps also had good news that month — since Katrina it had either rebuilt, strengthened or repaired 256 miles of levees and flood walls.
Funded by billions specially appropriated by Congress, the corps had met its goal — to make major improvements by the start of the 2006 hurricane season. Those improvements took a beating Monday and Tuesday during Hurricane Gustav, but they did not give way.
The corps, however, is only about a third of the way finished in restructuring the protection system. The project, with a mostly federal budget of $14.6 billion, is scheduled to be completed in 2011.
Despite the success so far, there are skeptics. A civil engineer in New Orleans and member of a local advocacy group Levees.org told National Public Radio on Wednesday that he wonders “if the plans that are currently in the making will really ever be implemented.”
And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal expressed concern on the same show about whether the corps will ultimately build a protection system strong enough to withstand another Category 5 hurricane.
Our view is that the next Congress and the next presidential administration should view this project as an urgent priority. A long delay, or any compromise on the strength of the system to save money, would place New Orleans in jeopardy every hurricane season.