Repairs Don't Allay Fears of Next Storm

A man fishes behind a ravaged parking lot near the 17th Street Canal levee  in New Orleans. A breach in the canal levee flooded the Lakeview area after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Work to repair the levee continues.
A man fishes behind a ravaged parking lot near the 17th Street Canal levee in New Orleans. A breach in the canal levee flooded the Lakeview area after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Work to repair the levee continues. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

NEW ORLEANS -- Where the canal wall burst and doomed the Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina, there now stands an imposing concrete monolith.

The new flood barrier is taller, wider and, by its shape, harder to topple.

But could the rebuilt defenses handle another Katrina?

The answer is no. Even by Army Corps of Engineers estimates, another Katrina would send storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico cascading over the walls that protect the Lower Ninth Ward from inundation.

Standing this week in the front yard of his rebuilt shotgun-style home, Charles Brown, 48, a carpenter, cast an eye at the nearby wall.

"Everyone knows another big storm would tear that sucker up," he said.

Today, the first day of hurricane season, few dispute that the city is safer than it was before Hurricane Katrina. But as time passes and rebuilding costs mount, the idea that the federal government will provide protection from the worst of hurricanes here seems ever more remote.

After Katrina's catastrophic inundation, many declared "Never again!" With that message, Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to study how to protect the city from flooding in Category 5 storms, the most devastating on the Saffir-Simpson scale. The idea still has strong political appeal.

"I believe we should order the Corps to achieve Category 5 protection over time," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said during a presidential campaign stop here recently.

But nearly two years after the storm, with the feasibility of protecting the city to that level under study, a project to defend the city from less-ferocious storms is proving far more expensive than anticipated. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has signaled that its commitment does not extend to Category 5 protection.

What the federal government has undertaken is a construction effort providing new flood walls, gates, pumps and levees around the canals that permeate this city. Some of the flood works are vast: At the 17th Street Canal, for example, the new tangle of massive metal pipes and pumps occupies 11 acres in the midst of the suburban Lakeview neighborhood.

When it is all done in 2011, these projects are supposed to give the city "100-year protection" -- that is, protection against a storm so powerful it happens on average only once in 100 years.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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