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$3 Billion Proposed for New Orleans Levee Work, But No Safety Guarantee

 
  Hitchings: Reconstructed system not likely to withstand another Category 3 storm. (Photo by Angelle Bergeron for ENR)
   

At a hastily-organized press conference Dec. 15 in New Orleans, Dan Hitchings, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers director of the New Orleans reconstruction Task Force Hope, announced that the Bush administration's request to Congress for an additional $1.5 billion would result in much-needed repairs and upgrades to the city's battered levee system. "The $3.1 billion will allow the Corps to bring the system up to the authorized level by September 2007," Hitchings said.

The money would come from the $62 billion that Congress has already appropriated for aid after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It would and be added to the $1.6 billion already pending before Congress for the Corps' immediate work. The money will pay for repairs to breaches in canal levee walls and eroded earthen levees in Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes.

However, reconstruction to the authorized level, by Hitchings' own admission, would not likely survive another storm of Katrina's strength. Depending upon direction and surge, storms weaker than a Category 3 could overtop levees in parts of eastern New Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines, even with the currently scheduled levee improvements. If stronger storms hit this hurricane season, the system won't be able to withstand the impact.

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Still, the new appropriation would provide the opportunity for the Corps to add further protections that will ensure the area won't see catastrophic failures like before, even if the system is overtopped, Hitchings said. Extra measures would ensure that pumping stations inside the levees aren't inundated so they can remove water that has made its way into the system, he said. Measures include: correcting the slope of levees; adding a rock base on the water side of canal levees to break down waves before they undermine a levee; and placing rocks or "gabion," rocks wrapped in fabric or chicken wire to hold them together, to reduce scour on the back side of levees in the event they are overtopped.

Earlier Thursday, Donald Powell, the top federal official for Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, announced that "the levee system will be better and stronger than it's ever been in the history of New Orleans," thanks to the additional $1.5 billion.
Powell repeated that statement while standing next to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin at the White House. Powell indicated that the Army Corps of Engineers would raise and strengthen levees throughout the system that have settled over the years and correct any design flaws that may have contributed to the catastrophic flooding caused when Katrina slammed into the area Aug. 29.

At the 17th Street Canal breach Thursday afternoon, Hitchings agreed that the New Orleans system is "certainly going to be built to standards that will be up to any system in the world." Teams of scientists and engineers are currently looking at other systems throughout the world, he said. Against a backdrop of cranes and backhoes, Hitchings admitted the construction time-frame to create such a system would be a few years.

Possible long-term solutions offered by the Corps include placing pump stations where inland drainage canals (such as those that failed) meet Lake Pontchartrain. "Of course with pump stations we're talking about major construction elements that will take three to five years to finish," Hitchings said. Floodgates at the end of the canals and elsewhere are also being considered. "The total project at the authorized level, to restore the system to withstand 100 mph winds and barometric pressure as low as 27.4 feet, is scheduled to be complete September 2007," Hitchings reiterated. Options for temporary measures include sheetpile walls where canals meet the lake.

The current appropriations don't include funding for more long-term, significant solutions like floodgates and new pumping stations. "At this point in time, it's more than financial," Hitchings said. "It's about making sure we know the best level of protection."

Indicating that an estimated 75% of the current levee system (about 350 miles of levees and floodwalls) has settled to well below the specified design height, Hitchings admitted it would be impossible to complete all necessary improvements before commencement of a new hurricane season.

Still, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Nagin were lauding the president's commitment to nearly double the earlier $1.6 billion package for levee repairs, and inviting displaced residents to return home and rebuild.

Walking through the nearby Lakeview neighborhood, homes hollowed out by the unwelcome surge of water, the long-term plan seemed small incentive to return to a city only six months away from what could possibly be another record hurricane season.

By Angelle Bergeron, for Engineering News-Record

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