Katrina and the Army Corps of Engineers: Manufacturing Disaster

The overnight transformation of a vibrant social ecology that was New Orleans into a post-historic wasteland has led to an explosion of opinion. Could it have been prevented, or at least the damage inhibited?

It transpires that there were fears of the prospect of this event and that there were attempts to head it off by preventative action. But the necessary funds had been cut, siphoned off to pay for the spreading of freedom and democracy in Iraq.

Most of us discover for the first time under what makeshift conditions the fabulous city of New Orleans had carved out its pulsating livelihood. A city sitting below sea level, hemmed in by Old Man Mississippi and the higher Lake Pontchartrain (still in the lingo of the impecunious French from whom the Yanks picked up a bargain after 1803 for a mere $15 million) on the other side.

This is a story of the confluence of some gargantuan currents. The long term victory of man over nature; the short term arrogance, criminality and criminal neglicence of a junta in office, and the long term revenge of nature over man.

In the US, the long term ascendancy of man over nature is embodied in one institution in particular ­ the US Army Corps of Engineers. This body keeps appearing in the stories.

In short, the Army Corps asked for some dough to patch up a city under obvious threat, and Washington deemed that there were higher priorities.

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But who or what is this thing called the Army Corps of Engineers? Below I reproduce a potted history, written some years ago for the edification of American engineering students.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is an institution unique in American history. The Corps is of interest not merely because of its size (it is the largest engineering and construction organization in the world), but because it presents a significant anomaly ­ how could a country pervaded by a culture of ‘free enterprise’ and civic autonomy sustain an arm of the military with substantial domestic responsibilities for activities of a social and economic character? The history of the Corps provides a ‘window’ into the complex development of the US itself.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers had its origins in 1775 as a vehicle for erecting the physical infrastructure of war. It was permanently organized in 1802 to provide such facilities on a continuing basis. After 1824, the Corps’ role gradually expanded into civil works projects. Internal waterways were the arteries of domestic commerce. Their spatial expanse and the multiplicity of their functions and associated problems gave them an intrinsically public character.

Population growth and economic development meant an inevitable expansion of government involvement, and gradually the federal government assumed greater responsibilities. As early as 1824, the Supreme Court declared that federal authority to regulate commerce extended to interstate navigation. The Corps was assigned responsibility for waterway management as a matter of course. The young country was similar to that of France, whose corps of engineers developed military and civic infrastructure as a matter of public duty. The US Corps and West Point (from whose top graduates Corps personnel have been sourced) were both started with the assistance of French engineers. Much early American engineering was ‘French’ both in its conceptual orientation and highly theoretical training, and in its culture of civil works being overseen by state officials for the broader public good.

The massive Mississippi system presented the major problems and the major arena of activity, and of conflict over the Corps’ role. Few non-engineers have ever confronted the scale and complexity of the technical problems that had to be solved to ‘tame’ the Mississippi system for large-scale navigation and dense settlement of its hinterland.

The Corps’ monopoly on advice and management of water resources was increasingly challenged in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The number of educational institutions increased dramatically, and the number of formally-trained engineers grew exponentially. Rapid industrial development fostered a growing private demand for engineers, a demand that was partly met by engineers with a British-style ‘learning on the job’ training.

Yet a steady stream of legislation decreed continuing public involvement in water management. Congress also dictated that the Corps continue to be the central instrument for this process. After 1910, the Corps was permitted to hire civilians to manage its growing list of projects, but the strong culture (born of an elitism and meritocratic hiring practices) was carried over from its military ancestry.

Initially concerned primarily with survey work, the central formal responsibility of the Corps became the ‘navigability’ of waterways. Inevitably, multiple inter-related responsibilities were acquired. With each step of the federal government’s pragmatic acquisition of greater influence over the nation’s economic life, the Corp’s enhanced role followed.

Important steps in this process were the post-Civil War Republican Party’s assertive action on civil works programs to hasten industrial development; the influence of turn-of-the-century Progressive Movement politics that stimulated ‘multi-purpose’ waterway policies (flood control, hydropower, water supply, etc.); the post-World War I demand for electric generating capacity; and the 1930s propensity for public works projects for unemployment relief, as on the massive Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric scheme.

The threat of total war resulted in the Corps being handed the organisational responsibility for development of the atomic bomb. The Corp’s Brigadier-General Leslie Groves was put in charge of the Manhattan Project, dictating deadlines to the physicist geniuses underneath him.

Inevitably, because of its size, experience and military roots, the Corps also became an instrument of US foreign economic policy, designing and overseeing construction projects overseas ­ involvement in the construction of the Panama Canal was symbolic of this role.

In spite of this expansion, flood control came to be the Corps’ dominant domestic responsibility. Expanded responsibility often came after a major disaster (as in 1927 and 1935), which stimulated a pragmatic Congressional response. By the 1940s, multi-purpose dam construction came to be a major part of Corps activity. Nevertheless, the Corps generally remained narrowly focused on projects ­ ports, bridges, dams, etc. Even in terms of flood control, the Corps long remained attached to levee construction and opposed to dams as the preferable form of control.

The Corps has survived the criticisms of regional planners, who claimed that river basins were an arbitrary basis for infrastructure development, of social planners who wanted to incorporate social indicators into development planning, of economists who wanted more rigorous cost-benefit evaluations of the planning process, and of political scientists who wanted to imposes rigorous rational methods of administration. The continuity in the Corps’ focus is probably driven by a deeply entrenched ‘engineering’ culture, but it has also been facilitated by a utopian dimension in the ambitions of its critics.

Post-World War II population growth meant continuing demand for Corps projects, and Congress used the Corps for developmental purposes. By the 1970s, Corps activity had been slowed ­ by procedural changes in project planning, by federal budgetary constraints that led to impasses over cost-sharing, and by community opposition to Corps priorities. There had always been community conflicts over land use, but environmental concerns now loomed large on the political agenda. Symbolic of the era was the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things required all federal agencies to consider the environmental implications of their activities.

The Corps revised its decision-making and consultative processes and its project evaluation techniques. Ironically, the Corps itself became a key instrument in the furthering of environmental concerns. The River and Harbor Act of 1899 (the ‘Refuse Act’) gave discretion to the Secretary of the Army (effectively the Corps) over the discharge or deposit of refuse. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 reinforced this role; and several judicial decisions in the early 1970s effectively gave the Corps jurisdiction over the entire water mass of the United States, placing wetlands protection within the ambit of the Corps’ responsibilities.

The use and control of water resources has been an essential part of American economic life and the Corps of Engineers has taken a central role in the development and management of those resources. In a country so profoundly imbued with an ethos of ‘free enterprise,’ it is salutary to discover that an arm of government has played such an important role in American development. That role has continued because governments and communities have continued to designate key resources as possessing a public or social character. The Corps as a public institution has retained legitimacy as a vehicle to develop and manage such resources.

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That was then; this is now.

The Army Corps of Engineers is the quintessential embodiment of its time. And that time may have been extended with the judicious allocation of resources to continue the project in this most vulnerable of human settlements. But judiciousness is a non-existent commodity in the current administration. As a consequence, the Army Corps of Engineers’ time has come.

The history of the Corps is invaluable because it brings out a salient feature ­ the entire river system, a mighty edifice, has been cajoled against its will into serving its ravenous human overlords. The catastrophe at the mouth of the system is a symptom of the intolerable pressures on the system in its entirety.

One statistic stands out above the details of the human suffering. The water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico is reported as being 30 degrees Centigrade. This is the mark of nature’s long term revenge over man.

EVAN JONES can be reached at: E.Jones@econ.usyd.edu.au


Evan Jones is a retired political economist from the University of Sydney. He can be reached at:evan.jones@sydney.edu.au