Levee costs triple to $10 bil, Bush administration says

Peter Whoriskey and Spencer S. Hsu Washington Post Mar. 31, 2006 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration said Thursday that the cost of rebuilding New Orleans' levees to federal standards has nearly tripled to $10 billion and that there may not be enough money to fully protect the entire region.

Donald Powell, the administration's rebuilding coordinator, said some places in the New Orleans area may be left without the protection of levees strong enough to meet requirements of the national flood insurance program. Those areas probably would face enormous obstacles in attracting home buyers and other investors willing to build there.

Powell said that rebuilding the city could take 25 years, a sentiment shared by many disaster recovery experts. He added, however, "It could be much shorter than that, depending on how they plan their future. I'm going to be doing everything I can to make this as short as possible."

The news represents a shift for the administration; President Bush had pledged in the days after Hurricane Katrina to rebuild New Orleans "higher and better." Now, some areas may lose out as they compete for levee protection. Powell's announcement, in a conference call with reporters, prompted denunciations from state and local officials who said the federal government is reneging on promises to rebuild the entire region.

"This monumental miscalculation is an outrage," Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said.

The change followed a surprise announcement from the Army Corps of Engineers that the levee reconstruction project, most recently estimated to cost $3.5 billion, would now cost $9.5 billion if insurance-certified levees were extended throughout the region.

Powell had said in December when the administration announced a $3.1 billion levee plan that Bush's commitment to rebuild the Gulf Coast "would be satisfied as it relates to the safety and security of the people." In February, after Congress approved $2 billion for the project, Bush said an additional $1.5 billion would be needed, a request the Senate will consider next week.

On Thursday, Powell acknowledged that now "we are faced with some new and tough policy decisions."

The news shattered the fragile relationship between Washington officials and Louisiana leaders, who have assumed that the rebuilding effort would cover the entire New Orleans area, not just parts.

State and local leaders said the U.S. government had broken a trust and appeared to backing away from commitments to rebuild. Louisiana officials also questioned why federal engineers are just now announcing that the task would cost $6 billion more.

"Every time we turn around, there's a new obstacle," said Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La. "The estimates were done for rebuilding the levees, and a number was given to the administration and to the Congress. Now all of a sudden they say they made a $6 billion mistake?"

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said the announcement confirmed his warnings since November that Washington is "stonewalling" and seeking "way too little money" for levee repairs.

But other Louisiana officials cited Bush's Sept. 15 pledge in New Orleans and Powell's promise to make the levee system "better and stronger than it ever has been" in saying that promises were being broken.

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