In the wake of Hurricane Betsy 40 years ago, Congress approved a massive hurricane barrier to protect New Orleans from storm surges that could inundate the city.
But the project, signed into law by President Johnson, was derailed in 1977 by an environmental lawsuit. Now, the question is: Could that barrier have protected New Orleans from the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina?
"If we had built the barriers, New Orleans would not be flooded," said Joseph Towers, the retired chief counsel for the Army Corps of Engineers' New Orleans district.
Tower's view is endorsed by a former key senator, along with academic experts, who say a hurricane barrier is the only way to control the powerful storm surges that enter Lake Pontchartrain and threaten the city. Other experts are less sure, saying the barrier would have been no match for Katrina.
The project was stopped in its tracks when an environmental lawsuit won a federal injunction on the grounds the Army's environmental impact statement was flawed. By the mid-1980s, the Corps had abandoned the project.
In Hurricane Katrina, the lake, swollen 12 feet, was slammed by 135 mile-per-hour winds against New Orleans' storm walls and levees. They failed in five places and flooded the city. On the city's eastern flank, the surge approached the city through a network of canals from Lake Borgne, also swollen and raging.
Although the largely forgotten project has been moribund for more than two decades, it has suddenly attracted renewed interest and regained credibility since Katrina left about 80 percent of New Orleans under water.
"My feeling was that saving human lives was more important than saving a percentage of shrimp and crab in Lake Pontchartrain," Towers said. "I told my staff at the time that this judge had condemned the city. Some people said I was being a little dramatic."
J. Bennett Johnston, a former powerful Louisiana senator and now a lobbyist in Washington, is working on Capitol Hill to resurrect the barrier.
"It ought to be part of the deal," he said. "It would have prevented the huge storm tide that came into Lake Pontchartrain."