- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

The White House yesterday agreed to spend $1.5 billion to strengthen levees in New Orleans, although it stopped short of saying the levees will be able to withstand a Cat egory 5 hurricane.

“The levee system will be better and safer than it’s ever been before,” said Donald Powell, the administration’s reconstruction czar. “The federal government is committed to building the best levee system known in the world.”

Mr. Powell made the announcement at the White House after meeting with President Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, head of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We understand that the people of New Orleans need to be assured that they’re going to be safe when they get back home, that their city has an infrastructure that is capable of sustaining a possible storm next season or in the seasons afterward,” Mr. Chertoff said.

He said the administration has spent $5.2 billion to help the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But the additional $1.5 billion to strengthen levees did not satisfy Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat.

“The White House still doesn’t grasp the magnitude of this disaster,” she told CNN. “Speaking only of the city of New Orleans — and leaving out the Parish of Jefferson, the Parish of Plaquemine, the Parish of St. Bernard — I don’t think that’s what the people of our region want.”

But Mr. Nagin thanked the president and U.S. taxpayers for the money and urged displaced residents to return home.

“It’s time for you to come back to the Big Easy,” the mayor said. “This action today says come home to New Orleans.”

On Capitol Hill, questions arose during a Senate hearing about whether federal, state or local officials are in charge of levee upkeep.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, praised Mr. Bush for the funding and his commitment to rebuild the levees, but said strings must be attached.

“That commitment to strengthening the levees must be accompanied by significant reforms,” Miss Collins said. “The confusion and chaos that characterize the current regulatory regime can no longer be tolerated.

“Not only must we strengthen the levees themselves, but also we must strengthen the oversight of the entire levee system if we are truly to protect New Orleans from another catastrophic failure.”

Engineers told the committee that there was confusion in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and records show a stop-work order was issued to workers filling a breach in New Orleans’ London Avenue Canal.

Army Corps of Engineers Col. Richard P. Wagenaar told the panel that no one wanted to take charge of the situation.

“I mean, where’s the parish president? Where is the mayor? And then the state, well, they work for DOTD,” Col. Wagenaar said, referring to Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development.

“At some point, you know, you’ve got to make some stuff happen. Because this was a bad situation,” he told the committee.

The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for building levees and participating in annual inspections. The state oversees the New Orleans levee district — which is appointed by the governor — and is responsible for daily maintenance and repairs.

“All of you didn’t do the job that you were supposed to be doing,” said Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican.

Also yesterday, the Senate worked on tax breaks for Louisiana casinos, golf courses and liquor stores, which were cut out of a $7 billion House bill passed last week.

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