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AEHR Media Coverage

Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Flood projects biased, critics say, White neighborhoods favored, corps told, The Times-Picayune
link to original article

by Mark Schleifstein

Representatives of environmental groups joined eastern New Orleans residents Tuesday in charging that the early focus of the Army Corps of Engineers on improving flood protection in the mostly white neighborhoods of Lakeview and Old Metairie has discriminated against minority communities.

At a corps meeting at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church that attracted 200 people, Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis warned that a failure of the corps to move quickly to protect eastern neighborhoods could result in lawsuits.

"People say don't pit us against Lakeview, but we didn't pit them against us," said Beverly Wright, director of Xavier University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. "You all did by giving them protection and giving us none."

The corps moved quickly to install gates at the end of the 17th Street, London Avenue and Orleans Avenue canals in an attempt to remove their broken canal walls from the danger of surge by the beginning of the 2006 hurricane season.

Corps contractors also repaired breaches in levees, some of them extensive, in eastern New Orleans and along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, raising them to heights that were required by levee construction standards before Katrina, corps officials said. In many cases, the levees actually are higher than required.

However, maps of the potential risk of flooding from a 100-year storm found that repairs to the canals resulted in Lakeview and Old Metairie seeing a 5 1/2-foot and 4 1/2-foot reduction in flooding, respectively, while there would be no flooding reduction in eastern New Orleans and only about a 2-foot reduction in the Lower 9th Ward.

During the past two years, the corps has struggled to determine how high levees needed to be raised to reach the 100-year level of protection. With that knowledge now in hand, the agency is about to award a contract to a company to design and build a combination of levees and gates that would dramatically reduce flooding in eastern New Orleans and in the Lower 9th Ward.

While the entire project is not scheduled for completion until the beginning of the 2011 hurricane season, a provision of the contract requires the contractor to attempt an interim solution to reduce flooding caused by water entering the Industrial Canal, possibly by building a gate across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway near its juncture with the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

Corps efforts defended

"We're trying to implement all the projects as fast as possible," said Kevin Wagner, a corps senior project manager. "I wish we could work at the same speed as we did immediately after the storm, but we can't. The rules have changed."

The agency's construction of the 100-year protection features is facing more routine approval procedures, officials said.

Community group leaders gave corps officials an impromptu presentation before the corps' own meeting on environmental justice began. Nathalie Walker, co-director of the Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, said the corps has violated an executive order by former President Clinton requiring federal agencies to consider environmental justice in all their decisions.

"Flood reduction has in fact been discriminatory," Walker said, pointing to maps of the different flood levels in Lakeview and eastern New Orleans. Results of the differing protection are discriminatory as well, she said.

"African-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans are paying more for insurance than whites and are investing money in homes that can still be repeatedly flooded for many years," she said.

Walker said decisions by the corps to not extend 100-year levels of protection to the predominantly-black Oakville community in Plaquemines Parish is equally discriminatory.

In a news conference before the meeting, the Rev. Vien Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, said the corps also made it difficult for his parishioners to participate in Tuesday's meeting by refusing to pay for a Vietnamese language translator.

Nguyen said he found the differing treatment of Lakeview and eastern New Orleans to be strange.

Differing return rate

"Maybe the reason is a difference in the rate of return" of residents, he said. "But our rate of return is 57 percent while it's only 37 percent in the Lakeview community."

Nguyen said the corps has promised to hold a separate meeting in the Village de L'Est community for Vietnamese-American residents.

In the corps part of the meeting, officials attempted to field questions about the difference in protection between Lakeview and other neighborhoods, with little success.

"We want our share of protection just like people in Lakeview," said Adrienne Quintal. "We're tired of it. We pay taxes. We want services like anybody else who lives in Lakeview or Uptown."

Mary Williams, community outreach manager for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said the lagging protection for eastern New Orleans also has made it difficult for businesses to return.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, a Sierra Club official, said environmental justice also should require the corps to restore wetlands destroyed by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a requirement not included in a corps report that recommended closing the shipping channel.

A corps official said the report was in response to a congressional request to determine whether the shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico should be deauthorized. A new law will be required to authorize restoration efforts along with the channel closure, he said.

_________________________
CORRECTION / CLARIFICATION
Legislation not needed: A story in Wednesday's editions incorrectly said new legislation would be needed to require the Army Corps of Engineers to restore wetlands lost during the operation of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. The Water Resources Development Act, recently passed by Congress, actually requires wetlands restoration as part of the closing of the channel. The same story also incorrectly reported the affiliation of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. The center is based at Dillard University. (12/13/2007)

CORRECTION APPENDED Representatives of environmental groups joined eastern New Orleans residents Tuesday in charging that the early focus of the Army Corps of Engineers on improving flood protection in the mostly white neighborhoods of Lakeview and Old Metairie has discriminated against minority communities. While the entire project is not scheduled for completion until the beginning of the 2011 hurricane season, a provision of the contract requires the contractor to attempt an interim solution to reduce flooding caused by water entering the Industrial Canal, possibly by building a gate across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway near its juncture with the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

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Advocates for Environmental Human Rights

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