Rebuilding New Orleans

Extraordinary Problems, Difficult Solutions

Heavily polluted floodwaters represent just one problem for New Orleans, officials said.
Heavily polluted floodwaters represent just one problem for New Orleans, officials said. (By Mark Serota -- Reuters)
By Guy Gugliotta and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 1, 2005

First they have to pump the flooded city dry, and that will take a minimum of 30 days. Then they will have to flush the drinking water system, making sure they don't recycle the contaminants. Figure another month for that.

The electricians will have to watch out for snakes in the water, wild animals and feral dogs. It will be a good idea to wear hip boots and take care of cuts and scrapes before the toxic slush turns them into festering sores. The power grid might be up in a few weeks, but many months will elapse before everybody's lights come back on.

By that time, a lot of people won't care because they will have taken the insurance money and moved away -- forever. Home rebuilding, as opposed to repairs, won't start for a year and will last for years after that.

Even then, there may be nothing normal about New Orleans, because the floodwater, spiked with tons of contaminants ranging from heavy metals and hydrocarbons to industrial waste, human feces and the decayed remains of humans and animals, will linger nearby in the Gulf of Mexico for a decade.

"This is the worst case," Hugh B. Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency, said of the toxic stew that contaminates New Orleans. "There is not enough money in the gross national product of the United States to dispose of the amount of hazardous material in the area."

Kaufman and other experts from around the country agreed yesterday that there will be no quick fix for New Orleans. But they acknowledged that even their sobering estimates for final "recovery" may be too optimistic, for nothing in their own personal and professional experience could compare with the abuse that Hurricane Katrina heaped upon the stricken city.

"We've had flooding events: Hurricane Floyd dropped 18 inches of rain in 24 hours; Isabel knocked down the power," said drinking-water expert Brian L. Ramaley, director of the Newport News (Va.) Waterworks. "But nothing we've had holds a candle to what they're facing now."

Officials in Baton Rouge, La., yesterday painted a bleak picture of New Orleans' immediate future. Its 485,000 inhabitants are refugees or soon-to-be refugees -- ordered out of town because the town is unlivable.

Electric power is gone. Drinking water is gone. Sewage service is gone. Roads are destroyed. Tens of thousands of homes are buried in contaminated floodwaters. The dead -- still uncounted -- float in drowned neighborhoods or lie pinned beneath debris.

"I surmise that there are people in New Orleans who will not be able to get back to their homes for months, if not forever," said Michael D. Brown, undersecretary of homeland security for emergency preparedness and response. "It will be a Herculean undertaking."

As if to underscore this grim forecast, state education officials urged parents living in shelters to enroll their children in out-of-town schools. Monroe, La., officials were already taking an informal census of displaced kids.

Before anything meaningful could happen in New Orleans, engineers had to figure out how to shore up two breaches in the city's fabled levees, then pump the flooded city dry -- a process that Maj. General Don T. Riley of the Army Corps of Engineers said would take a minimum of 30 days.

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