Friday, February 8, 2008

New Orleans residents accuse corps of racism

Angry residents of eastern New Orleans, the lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish resumed their criticism of the speed at which the Army Corps of Engineers has moved to protect their areas from hurricanes during a public hearing Thursday night.

"You people are involved in blatant racism regarding the black community all over this city," said Vanessa Gueringer, a member of the ACORN activist group representing the Lower 9th Ward.

The complaints focused on concerns raised last summer when the corps published maps showing that early repairs to the levee system in the area, especially the construction of gates on three canals in western New Orleans, dramatically reduced the risk of flooding in predominantly white neighborhoods, while the risk of flooding of largely African-American neighborhoods remained nearly the same as before Katrina.

Corps officials attempted to explain that the solutions for flooding on the city's eastern edge are taking longer because of the difficulties involved in determining how best to rebuild that part of the protection system.

Gib Owen, a civilian corps employee in charge of the environmental studies required for the projects, said the agency short-circuited the normal construction process by conducting environmental studies at the same time that preliminary studies were done on individual projects. But some projects, such as protection of the Industrial Canal, have taken longer to design because of the complicated engineering issues involved in building navigable gates, compared with earthen levees, he said.

Still, the corps has moved to speed up that process as well, requiring the company that will be chosen to design and build the Industrial Canal protection project to take interim steps to block surge by the beginning of the 2009 hurricane season.

Maj. Jeremy Chapman, who oversees the Industrial Canal project, said that contract, expected to cost at least $500 million, will be awarded in March.

August Martin, a branch chief with the corps' local Hurricane Protection Office, attempted to head off the charges of racism earlier in the meeting by answering many of the same questions that were raised at a similar meeting in eastern New Orleans two months ago.

"The entire area west of the (Industrial Canal) does not have a complete 100-year level of protection," Martin said, referring to areas with larger white population. "There is still major work to be done to protect that basin."

But residents attending the meeting at the Church at New Orleans on Chef Menteur Highway were not convinced, especially when corps officials said the decision to protect Lakeview soon after Katrina was directed by congressional authorizations.

"When the corps goes to Congress with maps and data, politicians are not engineers," Gueringer said. "They're depending on you to explain what they should do.

"When you went up there, why didn't you say these are the areas in critical need of attention?" she asked. "If you're a black person living in these areas, what happened? Who spoke for us before Congress?"

Dan Arceneaux, a member of the St. Bernard Coastal Zone Management Advisory Commission, also was critical of the corps' plan to close the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet near Hopedale.

He said that in deciding to close the Gulf outlet with a rock dike that would stick out of the water by only 5 feet at high tide, the corps ignored congressional orders to listen to St. Bernard officials, who have argued that the dike should be higher to help block surge.

Chapman said the dike was designed that way because its purpose is to reduce the erosion damage being caused by the open MR-GO, and not to serve as a flood-protection project.

Thursday's meeting is one of 41 held throughout the area since March to discuss the various hurricane protection construction projects.

The agency is accepting questions or comments on IER 11, the environmental report on the Industrial Canal project, through Feb. 29 at its Web site, .