Ever since its creation in 1775, the Army Corps of Engineers has been vulnerable to criticism. By nature, the Corps deals with some of the most demanding construction projects in the nation, those that are necessary for places to survive but that private enterprise could never handle. Though the demands on the Corps are many, funding, which is a product of a political process, is often inadequate. Plus, any project that affects nature is bound to have some environmental impact, which again puts the Corps in the firing range.
Nevertheless, the Corps deserves far more credit than it ever receives. New Orleans would be just a boutique tourist town bordering a shallow stream had the Corps not long ago contained the Mississippi River into its path through the city and kept the river deep enough for big cargo ships to arrive. The Corps’ levees have long held the river from overflowing so that neighborhoods could develop and a city could grow.
Most recently we have seen the Corps’ work at its very best as the river rose to one of its highest levels ever. A brilliant system of spillways kept all of South Louisiana outside of the flood plains dry. Timely opening of the gates on the Bonnet Carre spillway and at Morganza, as well as the channeling at the Old River control structure near Angola worked brilliantly using concepts that were developed in the 1930s after the Great Flood of 1927 created a demand for a solution.
Equally impressive was the ability of the Corps, working with other agencies, to be able to predict high water crests.
There are those who will always have bitter feelings about the levee failure induced by Hurricane Katrina for which the Corps has been held responsible. While we cannot defend the agency, we do enter into the discussion that the Corps answers to Congress and Congress answers to the voters. Politicians, citizens and even editorial writers failed to ask enough questions and to demand better protection.
For the present, though, the Corps deserves to wave a trophy. There will be no victory parade down St. Charles Avenue, but this win had super consequences.
Thank you, Corps of Engineers. May your barriers be strong and your seas be calm.