Katrina Update: A Billion Dollars Later, New Orleans Still at Risk

 

 By JOHN SCHWARTZ

NEW ORLEANS — Six inches.
(New York Times) After two years and more than a billion dollars spent by the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild New Orleans’s hurricane protection system, that is how much the water level is likely to be reduced if a big 1-in-100 flood hits Leah Pratcher’s Gentilly neighborhood.
Looking over the maps that showed other possible water levels around the city, Ms. Pratcher grew increasingly furious. Her house got four feet of water after Hurricane Katrina, and still stands to get almost as much from a 1-in-100 flood.
By comparison, the wealthier neighborhood to the west, Lakeview, had its flooding risk reduced by nearly five and a half feet.
… New Orleans was swamped by Hurricane Katrina; now it is awash in data, studied obsessively in homes all over town. And the simple message conveyed by that data is that while parts of the city are substantially safer, others have changed little. New Orleans remains a very risky place to live.
The entire flood system still provides much less protection than New Orleans needs, and the pre-Katrina patchwork of levees, floodwalls and gates that a Corps of Engineers investigation called “a system in name only” is still just that.
The corps has strengthened miles of floodwalls, but not always in places where people live. It has built up breached walls on the east side of one major canal, but left the west side, which stood up to Hurricane Katrina, lower and thus more vulnerable. It has not closed the canals that have often been described as funnels for floodwaters into the city.
And its most successful work, building enormous floodgates to cut off the fingerlike canals that brought so much flooding into the city, had a divisive effect. The gates now protect prosperous neighborhoods like Lakeview, and though corps officials say there has been no favoritism, the effect has been to draw out old resentments and conspiracy theories in a city that never lacked for them.
… the city still lacks a system that can stand up to that 1-in-100 storm, let alone one like Hurricane Katrina, which the corps calls a 1-in-396 storm. The work that could build the more robust system — originally estimated at $7 billion, and now at least twice that — will not be completed until 2011 at the earliest, and experts agree that even that level of protection will be less than the city needs.
The corps is working on a two-year, $20 million study to find ways of providing even more protection, but it will not even be released until December.
Without a strong rampart of protection against storms, New Orleans will have a hard time persuading its far-flung residents and businesses to return and rebuild….

Patching the System
The corps has hardly been idle in the two years since the flooding. It quickly mobilized a force that grew to as many as 3,300 workers in the New Orleans area, and its cranes and bulldozers belch exhaust at waterways all over town, installing walls of concrete, massive pumps and mounds of earthwork.
Ultimately, though, the corps was trying to patch up a 350-mile system that was unfinished and vulnerable long before Hurricane Katrina, and the haphazard results are clear. It has repaired breaches on the east bank of a waterway called the Industrial Canal with 4,000 feet of stolid, well-armored floodwall to protect the still-devastated Lower Ninth Ward, even though few people are living there and there is little sign of the neighborhood’s return.
Across the canal from that floodwall, however, the walls that stood up to the storm have not yet been raised, even though they protect an inhabited neighborhood. That means they remain at their pre-Katrina height, lower than the new wall and vulnerable to being overtopped. They have been strengthened against catastrophic failure if water flows over the top, but floodwaters would nonetheless flow into Gentilly.
Meanwhile, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, an old navigation channel that many scientists say destroyed wetlands and contributed to a funnel effect that increased the damage to the city, has yet to be sealed off. The corps has said that proposals from contractors for doing so are on their way, but that work, too, may not be complete before 2011.
Then there are the new pumps at the mouths of the city’s main drainage canals, which will be turned on if the huge new floodgates have to be closed to keep out lake water in a storm. Two reports said that the pumps, ordered in a rush of planning before the 2006 storm season, were a troubled operation from the start, and that if a storm had hit in the first year after Hurricane Katrina, severe flooding could have occurred.
Experts who have looked at the situation in the year since then say that things have improved, and the pumps are working as planned. But community activists say they suspect that the corps has not yet fully fixed the problems.
On a broader scale, the essential but daunting work of restoring the wetlands along the Gulf Coast, which can reduce the effect of storm surges, has yet to get under way in earnest.

Analyzing the Risk
Col. Jeffrey A. Bedey, commander of the corps’ Hurricane Protection Office, acknowledged that the work so far has been piecemeal, because the scale of project is so enormous. The drive to provide protection against that 1-in-100 storm by 2011, Colonel Bedey said, is more thorough.
He said the maps that will predict the impact of that work, which could be published before the end of August, “should show Upper Gentilly looking very good,” and much of the rest of the city besides.
And so, he said, the analysis that many people will have to make is, “Am I really willing to take the risk between 2007 and 2011” that no big storm will overpower the work done so far?
That requires more than an analysis of risk; it requires a calculus of hope. And it is not a question that needs to be asked only in New Orleans. It is the same question that comes up when a steam pipe in New York City explodes or a bridge 1,200 miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans collapses. Getting infrastructure right is hard, and keeping it strong takes vigilance. And that means safety, uncomfortably, is a relative thing.
“If people were looking for a quick and easy answer — is it safe? — there is no easy answer,” said David E. Daniel, the president of the University of Texas at Dallas and the head of a panel that monitors the corps’ investigation of the Katrina disaster. …

Going on Instinct
The corps has repeatedly urged local residents to come to its community briefings or to look over the flood risk data, available on its Web site that provides possible water levels by street address. Complete article

One Comment on "Katrina Update: A Billion Dollars Later, New Orleans Still at Risk"

  1. Diana Thébaud Nicholson December 21, 2007 at 4:30 pm · Reply

    New Orleans to demolish thousands of ‘poor’ homes
    By Leonard Doyle in Washington
    21 December 2007
    In the face of violent protests, New Orleans City Council yesterday moved to demolish thousands of low-income houses as the city continues the agonisingly slow process or rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina.
    Demolition crews will now move in to dismantle the 4,500 brick buildings that generations of poor people lived in. The outburst of violence came amid concerns that the authorities intend to reduce the numbers of predominantly poor, black people living in New Orleans.
    … The US Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to replace the units badly, which were old and in reed of demolition even before they were damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It intends to replace them with new mixed-income housing. More

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