Throughout the Corps of Engineers’ history of building public works projects, they have sought to protect or enhance property values and economic interests of various groups. Often fixing one problem causes another. Sometimes those new problems are later referred to as “unintended consequences.” Many times those supposed “unintended consequences” are known in advance. Nevertheless, these economic shifts often occur without warning or compensation to the people imperiled or damaged. This is the power and burden that goes with building large public works projects. It also presents the legal question of when should a property owner whose interests are imperiled or damaged by public works projects be compensated for such an economic shift.
In an AP story carried in the online version of the USA Today on July 1, 2007, Robert Bea, the lead investigator, for the National Science Foundation’s team that has examined levee failures in New Orleans resulting from Hurricane Katrina and J. David Rogers, another member of the National Science Foundation team, expressed concern that levee repair work in New Orleans has increased the risk of flooding the most historic neighborhoods of New Orleans including the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny.
These experts believe that the repair work to the levee system could funnel water into the cul-de-sac of the Industrial Canal potentially overwhelming the 12 foot high concrete walls on the Industrial Canal at this location. The area at risk is a mere two miles from the French Quarter. According to the AP story, one Corps of Engineers commander referred to the situation as the flood control system’s “Achilles’ Heel.”
Ed Link, a University of Maryland engineer and an adviser on the levee reconstruction work stated that the levee system as a whole was stronger now than before Hurricane Katrina, but when speaking of the increased flood risk to the French Quarter, Link said “it’s misinformation to infer that it is an unintended consequence.”
Various community leaders in the French Quarter expressed surprise. Apparently no one told them that their cultural, economic and property interests were being adversely affected by the Corps repair work on the levees.
Presumably increasing flood danger to the oldest and most culturally significant historic neighbors in New Orleans is not the active desire of the Corps of Engineers, but it is apparently a known and considered consequence of their work. Unfortunately if this disaster scenario occurred and the French Quarter were flooded, any claims for compensation against the Corps after the fact would likely be met by claims of federal immunity in its various forms.