Army asked about historic designation for levees

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The National Parks Service is pressing the Army for its opinion on whether two sites where levees failed during Hurricane Katrina should be on the National Register of Historic Places, a matter that is complicated by longstanding lawsuits over the catastrophic flooding.

An advocacy group, Levees.Org, has worked since 2010 to get breach sites on the Industrial Canal in the Lower 9th Ward and at the 17th Street Canal by the Lakeview neighborhood placed on the register.

The Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over one site and therefore gets to submit its view on the issue. But Army officials last month declined to offer an immediate opinion, saying the issues require consultation with federal lawyers because of pending litigation.

With the corps declining to offer an opinion within a prescribed timeline, Levees.Org recently appealed to the National Parks Service. The Parks Service sent a letter to the Corps, dated May 4, giving the corps 15 days to submit an opinion. That 15-day period begins upon receipt of the letter. As of Wednesday morning, the letter had not been officially received by the corps, said Jim Gabbert of the National Parks Service, who noted that mail going to federal agencies in Washington undergoes a lengthy security screening process.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether the litigation concerns might delay the ultimate decision.

Gabbert said the Parks Service is consulting with Interior Department lawyers on the issue. He said he expects attorneys for the corps, Interior and possibly the Department of Justice to meet on the matter “in the near future.”

Under ordinary circumstances, the Park Service’s Keeper of the Register would have 45 days from the time it received the Levees.Org appeal to act on the nomination of the breach sites, Gabbert said. That would place the decision deadline at June 14.

“But we have the added wrinkle of ongoing litigation,” Gabbert said.

Levee breaches in and around New Orleans flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and also swamped suburban areas in 2005. Flood water lifted some houses off foundations and flooded others at or above roof lines. Close to 2,000 deaths were blamed on the storm, many due to drowning.

Levees.Org emerged as a major critic of the corps, holding that Katrina was more of a man-made disaster than a natural one, due to faulty design and construction of floodwalls and levees. The catastrophic flooding that resulted was of historic proportions and is worthy of recognition on the national register, Levees.Org believes.

The register is the federal government’s list of properties it considers worthy of preservation and recognition. The process of receiving recognition can be long and difficult, and sites typically must be 50 years old, though exceptions are made.

Placement of a site on the register requires the gathering of data on the sites that other federal or federally licensed agencies would have to gather before doing any work on the sites, Mark R. Barnes, an archaeologist and consultant for Levees.Org said in an interview last year.

The 39-page nomination submitted by Levees.Org reads in part like a history of drainage and flood protection in New Orleans and in part like a technical manual. In a letter last month, Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy’s said the nomination relies on experts who are involved in the litigation and involves issues in dispute in the litigation.