OUR VIEW: Five years later, New Orleans still in danger

As the fifth anniversary of Katrina came and went Sunday, a question came to mind: Is the city of New Orleans any safer from that type of disaster today?

The answer is: Probably not.

While the Bush administration caught a great deal of criticism for its slow reaction to the 2005 disaster in the Big Easy and the other affected areas along the Gulf Coast, it may be that the government's bigger shortcoming has been in not preparing for the next disaster.

The New Orleans area is recovering, with estimates that the city has regained 78 percent of its pre-disaster population. The New Orleans metropolitan area has fared better, regaining 90 percent of its population and just less than 85 percent of its jobs.

But the question that's on everyone's mind is the levees. The federal government has spent more than $2 billion on recovery projects that include repairing 220 miles of those levees, but many wonder whether the work is adequate.

A documentary released in theaters Monday, "The Big Uneasy" argues that not only are the levees not adequate for the job, their destruction came from storm conditions that were far below what they were rated to withstand. The documentary comes from an unusual source: actor Harry Shearer, a satirist and part-time New Orleans resident who's best known these days as the voice for characters such as Ned Flanders on the long-running cartoon "The Simpsons."

In an interview last week with Neal Conan on Conan's National Public Radio show "Talk of the Nation," Shearer said he tried to uncover the fundamentals of why the city was swamped.

"Over four and a half decades, under administrations of both parties, the Corps continued to do the work that experts have found riddled with defects and misjudgments and mistakes," Shearer remarked after one caller's question. "And it's interesting to note that that system, so-called, was not completed at the time of Katrina, despite being under construction for four and a half decades."

Shearer also said that it was "noteworthy" that no stimulus money had been used to rebuild coastal wetlands that protect New Orleans from storms.

In the documentary, Shearer interviews experts, including a Corps of Engineers official, Maria Garzino, who filed a whistleblower complaint against the Corps after her superiors ignored problems she found with pumps the Corps was testing for installation in New Orleans. When tested, the standards on the pumps were continually reduced, but the machines continued to malfunction.

In his interview with Conan, Shearer explained that the pumps are a part of the Corps' strategy for dealing with storms by moving rainwater that, if it's allowed to accumulate as it did during Katrina, would hit high levels in the canals.

With the canals bordered by the same floodwalls that failed in 2005, non-functioning pumps would mean stress on those levees -- and could mean another deadly disaster.

Indeed, that is the issue. The government's shortcomings in dealing with Katrina's aftermath are well documented. What's not as well known is why it happened to start with. As with many stories, the "why" is the critical issue.

A documentary, of course, carries a point of view, but if the arguments made in Shearer's "The Big Uneasy" are true, New Orleans is in just as much danger today as it always has been and tax money has been wasted and continues to be.

And if that's the case, then the residents of New Orleans certainly have a reason to feel uneasy, and U.S. taxpayers have a reason to demand an accounting from their government.