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Extraordinary Problems, Difficult Solutions
Massive Floods, Pollution Make for 'Worst Case'

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.

Pumping, Riley said, is a question of having electric power. The Corps would provide two generators, he added, but he could not say when they would arrive. Entergy, the local power company, said its crews are working, but only in "accessible" areas, of which New Orleans had few -- because of the flooding.

Out-of-town energy officials said Entergy, even once it gets up to speed, is likely to find that redoing electric power after Katrina presents far different challenges from clean-up after the devastation of a normal here-today-gone-tomorrow hurricane.

"You can throw the conventional methods of restoration out the window," said Fred N. Day IV, chief executive of Progress Energy Carolinas, which battled severe flooding in eastern North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. "Just to get people and materials in place was so difficult we had to use helicopters."

Then there were "unusual safety issues," like "snakes and dogs and wild animals that can't make it to higher ground," Day continued. "Our employees went to a local sports shop and bought all the hip boots and flat-bottomed boats there were. It worked out good."

Jeff Corbett, Progress's vice president for distribution, said cuts and bruises are dangerous. "We had to be sure that a little scratch wouldn't create life-threatening infection," Corbett said. "With the stagnant water and the chemicals and dead animals, it eventually becomes a nasty soup."

Day said Progress restored power to "those who could take service" in less than a week, but the rest -- about 20 percent -- were part of "a long drawn-out process," with contractors from sister utilities, including Progress, cycling in and out over months.

But a real estimate? "Our scale was big to us at the time," Day said. "But it was nothing compared to what they have in Louisiana."

Having electricity will also be critical to restoring drinking-water and wastewater treatment. L.D. McMullen, chief executive and general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, described a "three-step process" to restore his plant. It was submerged in 1993, when the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers overflowed their banks.

The key, he said, is to keep contaminated water out of the system. First clean the treatment plant, start it up and run it until it is making drinkable water -- at least seven days. Then flush the system, using extra chlorine and taking care to dump the water wherever you can.

Finally, McMullen said, individual families have to flush their lines. He suggested a vigorous media campaign and phone bank staffed with plumbers, "who did a superb job" helping instructions.

The whole exercise took 19 days in Des Moines, with 350,000 people and 1,000 miles of pipeline. "The general concept would work fine in New Orleans, but probably would take longer because it's a bigger system," McMullen said. "There's probably a lot of broken pipes in town and broken mains, too. You'd have to repair them first."

Deciding whether to repair, or simply abandon, damaged homes will require a complicated triage involving not only residents but also insurance companies and local officials who will set the rules on which houses will be allowed to stand and which will come down.

"In most hurricanes, you're talking about wind damage, lost roofs -- that kind of thing," said Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Homebuilders. "Flooding is much more insidious. Structures are still standing, but there are devastating effects. With the dirty water, it may never be possible to repair it. You'll have to rebuild, or at least gut it."

If you care. Carliner said experience shows that contractors will spend the first year after the water recedes in "patching up" damaged houses. There will be a run on plywood, roofing and other nonstructural materials.

Only after that will contractors turn to rebuilding, and "that takes a long time," Carliner said. "A lot of people who get insurance money for rebuilding don't do so -- they just move someplace else."

And they don't come back. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, South Florida needed 50,000 new units of housing, Carliner said, but there was no construction boom. "Rebuilding occurred over years, just in the normal course of events -- I don't think we'll have a building surge here."

Or anywhere nearby, perhaps. The EPA's Kaufman, a designer of the Superfund legislation to clean up toxic waste, said New Orleans and the Gulf Coast face "an absolute catastrophic situation" that will take years to abate.

Louisiana, a center of the oil, gas and chemical industries, "was known for its very weak enforcement regulations," Kaufman said, and there are a number of landfills and storage areas containing "thousands of tons" of hazardous material to be leaked and spread.

"On top of that, you have dead bodies that are going to start to decompose, along with the material that was in industrial and household discharge, sewage, gasoline and waste oil from gas stations," he added. "You've got a witches' brew of contaminated water."

Given New Orleans's desperate straits, recovery teams will not be able to do anything with the toxic mess except pump it into the Gulf of Mexico, ensuring that the contamination will spread to a larger area, he said. "There's just no other place for it."

Once the water is gone, environmental officials will likely undertake a "grid survey," sampling the formerly flooded areas to get soil profiles and determine how safe it is for residents to move back or rebuild.

The survey is likely to take six months. "If it were me, I wouldn't go back until there was a solid assessment of contamination of the land," Kaufman said. And even then, he added, authorities will be monitoring levels of water toxicity along the coastline for years: "There is no magic chemical that you can put in the Gulf to make heavy metals or benzene go away. You're stuck with it."

Whoriskey reported from Baton Rouge.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company