Keeping the Waters at Bay
There's no shortage of ideas on how to protect the Crescent City. But ideas are the easy part
NEW ORLEANS--Standing on a bridge he helped build, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager Jack Fredine surveys the mouth of New Orleans's 17th Street Canal. A year ago, this was a spot nobody paid a lick of attention to. Now, thanks to Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic failure of the canal's levee, it's infamous. Just downstream, to the north, lies the broad expanse of Lake Pontchartrain, from which a 12-foot wall of water surged into the canal on the morning of August 29. To the south, the drainage canal's pumping station is just barely visible. In between, along the canal's eastern bank, lies what little remains of the Lakeview neighborhood--block after block of shattered homes and shattered dreams. "The water hit the end of the canal, and it didn't have anywhere to go but out there," says Fredine, pointing to the rupture point, just a hundred yards or so upstream from the bridge. The breach has been dammed off with large metal sheet pilings and shored up with rock and gravel. A pump shoots seepage back into the canal in a high muddy arc.
What's most striking, however, is just how little has changed. With the clock ticking down toward this year's hurricane season--it starts on June 1--residents of New Orleans can be forgiven for wondering if their city's battered defenses will be ready should another killer storm hit. "I think it's going very well given where we started," says Walter Baumy, deputy director of Task Force Guardian, the Army Corps's $770 million program to repair levees, floodwalls, and other damaged pieces of the region's flood-protection system. Almost all the contracts--56 of 59, to be exact--have been awarded, Baumy notes, and the pace of the work is picking up. "We expect it to be pretty much 24 hours a day,"Baumy says, acknowledging that June is an awfully tight deadline.
Step by step. Baumy's assignment is to repair the damage caused by last year's storm--to get the system back to where it was when Katrina rumbled through. Making New Orleans safer than before, well, that's another story. The decisions there will ultimately be made by Congress and carried out by the corps--which will issue a report on the subject by June. In the meantime, however, at least four other groups are proposing solutions. They range from teams of nationally known scientists and engineers to a local committee set up by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. The plans differ in detail, but there are broad areas of agreement, on issues like the need to harden levees and floodwalls, protect canals from in-rushing storm surges, and get serious about reversing a century or more of destruction of Louisiana's coastal wetlands--the marshes, swamps, and bayous that used to act as natural barriers against storm surges.
The first priority, says Larry Roth, deputy executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, is to make sure the region's earthen levees are "armored,"or paved over with concrete, asphalt, or rock along the outside. The levees are just mounds of compacted earth, some with concrete floodwalls along their crest; when floodwater from the canals flows over the top of the system, unarmored levees can be washed away. The catastrophic flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, was caused by breaches in the inner harbor navigation canal levee, which failed because waves pouring over the top of its floodwall sent water rushing down the outside to undercut the soil at its base. Armoring is simple enough in concept, and it's certainly a low-tech solution. But with 129 miles of levees in the Orleans Levee District alone, Roth says, armoring the entire region will "not be easy or inexpensive."