Do Not Forsake Us

Robert Newsom removes debris from a damaged house in New Orleans.
Robert Newsom removes debris from a damaged house in New Orleans. (By Tony Dejak -- Associated Press)

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By Jim Amoss
Sunday, November 27, 2005

President Bush flew into New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. His staff had to fire up giant generators to bathe St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square in floodlights, as a backdrop for his promise that he would "do what it takes" to rebuild New Orleans.

"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans," he said, "and this great city will rise again."

Then the lights went out, and the president left. Vast swaths of the city have been in darkness ever since.

It would be unprecedented and indefensible for the federal government to leave an American city to fend for itself in recovery. But when we talk of the federal government's role in rebuild-

ing New Orleans, it's important to understand its direct culpability in the destruction.

At the site of the worst urban disaster in American history, we are a city obsessed. Rebuilding New Orleans is our breakfast-table conversation, our lunchtime chatter, our pillow talk. But while we talk, we also wait. For a settlement on our homeowner insurance policy, for our children's schools to reopen, for a sign that our neighbors will come back.

Above all we are waiting for Congress and the federal government to decide that New Orleans deserves strong levees -- stronger than the sorry system, designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers, that collapsed, wrecking our neighborhoods. We want word from Washington that a great American city will not be left to die.

As our newspaper has documented in recent weeks, the miles of federally built concrete floodwalls that were meant to keep Lake Pontchartrain from flooding the city through its drainage canals during a hurricane appear to have been poorly designed and improperly constructed. The floodwall system is a federal project, designed by the Corps and built under Corps specifications. Evidence suggests that metal sheet piles didn't go deep enough into the ground and that the walls were built on peaty soil that did not provide adequate anchorage. One engineering professor from Louisiana State University called in to investigate the failures said it was

the kind of engineering shortfall he'd expect his first-year students to be able to identify.

When several of the federally built floodwall panels gave way on the morning of Katrina, after the worst winds had passed, the storm-swollen lake cascaded into the city. It was a man-made disaster, a federal engineering failure with multibillion-dollar consequences.

Today, when we New Orleanians travel around the country, we are comforted by a tremendous outpouring of sympathy from ordinary Americans. Many have given generously to charities for Katrina victims. We also hear people talk about how things must be getting back to normal.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. New Orleans has become two cities -- an enclave of survivors clustered along the Mississippi River's crescent and a vast and sprawling shadow city where the water stood, devoid of power and people.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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