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Who looks after the levees?

Senate committee gets confusing accounts from officials

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau

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Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina flow through a broken levee near downtown New Orleans.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Finger-pointing that began after Hurricane Katrina over who was responsible for maintaining the levees in New Orleans continued at a Senate hearing Thursday.

At one point immediately after Katrina hit, the confusion resulted in an angry confrontation near the broken 17th Street Canal levee.

The atmosphere at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing was generally more collegial among the federal, state and local officials who oversee the levees.

But the officials still gave conflicting opinions about who is responsible for operating, inspecting, maintaining and making emergency repairs to the levees that protect the city.

Asked directly who was responsible for emergency repairs to New Orleans levees, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official and a Louisiana state official both said the Orleans Levee District -- at least in the early stages of an incident.

When the former president of the levee district -- a local body -- was asked, he said the responsibility "unequivocally" falls to the Corps of Engineers.

"I look at it from the standpoint, from my level as ... they are the head. They are the brains. They have the engineering, the design, the overall [expertise]," said James P. Huey, former president of the Orleans Levee District Board of Commissioners.

The confusion also was evident in the days immediately following Katrina, but with a different tilt, testified Col. Richard P. Wagenaar, district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers.

When corps workers attempted to reach the site to help, a local contractor turned them away, Wagenaar said.

"He literally blocked our equipment from operating on the bridge," Wagenaar said.

Committee members said the confusion over responsibility still has not been resolved.

"My mom didn't raise dumb kids, and I'm a little confused as to who has ultimate responsibility," said Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota.

Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins asked Huey about whether the Orleans Levee Board was required to inspect its levees.

"Mr. Huey, is it accurate that the first time you became aware of the federal regulation requiring inspections of the levees at least once every 90 days was when our committee staff read that regulation to you?" asked Collins, a Maine Republican.

"Yes, ma'am," Huey responded.

Collins criticized the Orleans Levee Board, saying it devoted time to managing properties -- including two marinas and an airport -- and managing a license for a floating casino instead of focusing on its core mission.

Huey said the businesses helped him turn the board's $6 million deficit into a $21 million surplus. He was forced to operate the businesses because the state legislature cut the levee district's tax revenues in half, he said.

Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio said Congress deserves some of the blame.

"We haven't done the job ... that we should have been doing in terms of our funding of the Army Corps of Engineers in dealing with some of the problems that we have in this country," Voinovich said.

"We have been penny-wise and pound-foolish in terms of our human capital and our physical capital needs of this agency, and quite frankly a bunch of other agencies."

Thursday's hearing was the ninth in a series of Katrina-related hearings the committee has held since the August 29 disaster that left more than 1,300 dead in Louisiana and Mississippi.

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