New Orleans Levee Warnings Went Unheeded

For years, Louisiana officials have been warning of the tragedy that could result if the levees surrounding New Orleans were breached.

Every year, they begged for more money to strengthen the walls that kept the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River from overwhelming the Big Easy -- and almost every single year for the last decade, they were turned down.

Today, one of those officials looked upon those refusals with woe. "New Orleans looks like Baghdad underwater," said John Breaux, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana.

"We have chaos in the street. We have people who are desperate. They are hungry, they haven't slept, they've taken desperate measures," he told ABC News "Primetime" co-anchor Cynthia McFadden.

Breaux said the warnings were there -- and they were as much the subjects of discussion on Capitol Hill as on the front pages of newspapers.

"We've talked about it and said it in speeches on the floor of the Congress that we needed to be better prepared … yet the funding was not there," he said.

The Work of Our Fathers

Michael Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi who served as the civilian head of the Army Corps of Engineers until 2002, said what happened in New Orleans is a "sad, sad commentary."

"We have seen in the last four days -- in a matter of 72 hours -- we saw a modern city move from being totally 21st century into the Third World," he said.

However, he said repairing the city's infrastructure was not something that could have been done in the last five or six or seven years. It would have involved making the levees higher, restructuring weakened areas, and even building new levees.

"It had to be something done just like our grandparents and our parents did for us," he said. "They had to plan for the future. And not be so self-centered that they would look at nothing except self-gratification on what is good for us today."

A Debt Comes Due

Regardless of when Washington should have taken action, there is no question that investing in the levees and wetlands could have made the city safer, said Ivor van Heerden, a professor at Louisiana State University.

Van Heerden, who has studied the impact of hurricanes on New Orleans, also knows it has always been difficult to get money from Washington.

"A lot of politicians have told me, 'Look Ivor, why spend money on something that could never happen?' Well it did happen," he said.

And the refusal is only more glaring in light of this past years proposed record cut to the Army Corps of Engineers budget in New Orleans: down 20 percent, or $71.2 million.

"We in Louisiana kind of say, 'Hey hang on, we are as important as the Iraqis, you know, you've spent billions and billions of dollars there … why don't you spend just a little bit on us?'" Van Heerden said.

Parker says no one could have known the extent of a breach, but everyone knew if one happened, there would be real problems.

"What we wanted was a buffer to be able to put the money in place to make the infrastructure withstand as much as it possibly could. And now we're in a situation where we're having to play catch-up," he said. "It's going to be much more expensive than anything that we've done in a long, long time."