Corps Details New Orleans Flood Risk After Repairs

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007

NEW ORLEANS, June 20 -- In this city still half-emptied from one of the worst floods in American history, one question provokes the ever present doubt.

Exactly how risky is it to live here?

Today, for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, U.S. officials offered some specific answers, the results of a landmark study of the flood threat.

After nearly two years of levee repairs, the chances are 1 in 500 that nearly all of the city will be flooded again this year with more than six feet of water, according to flood risk maps issued today by the Army Corps of Engineers.

There is a 1 in 100 annual chance that roughly one-third of the city will be flooded with as much as six feet of water. For dozens of city blocks, the chance of significant flooding is twice as high.

"If I were moving or returning to New Orleans, I'd have one of these flood maps in my back pocket," Donald Powell, the Bush administration's Gulf Coast recovery chief, said at a meeting to release to the information. "I'd want to be safe."

Meteorologists estimate that on average a storm like Katrina strikes once every 400 years.

The new flood-risk maps are expected to renew the controversy, sometimes racially charged, over what parts of the city ought to be rebuilt.

Although some experts have pressed for the most vulnerable neighborhoods to be closed at least temporarily, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has bowed to pressure from residents of those areas and insisted that every resident has the "right of return." He has said the free market, not planners, should dictate where the city is rebuilt.

In a statement, Nagin said "we need assurance that this is reliable data. . . . But even if this information is accurate, simply identifying the risk does not solve the problem. . . . These American citizens deserve the protection they were denied to begin with."

Said Powell: "Now you'll have science and political will all clashing. What will prevail? I don't know."

By 2011, the Corps of Engineers is supposed to finish its $7 billion levee construction project. That is expected to significantly reduce the flooding risks, though details regarding the added safety are not yet available.

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