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Gustav: The Day After

Richard Voisin, 47, checks on the damage to his collapsed trailer collapsed that was destroyed during the height of Hurricane Gustav Monday, Sept. 1, 2008, in Houma, La. Voisin and his sister escaped the collapsed trailer just before the roof caved in. ( AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Brett Coomer)
Richard Voisin, 47, checks on the damage to his collapsed trailer collapsed that was destroyed during the height of Hurricane Gustav Monday, Sept. 1, 2008, in Houma, La. Voisin and his sister escaped the collapsed trailer just before the roof caved in. ( AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Brett Coomer) (Brett Coomer - AP)

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Suzanne Fournier
Public Affairs Chief, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; 1:00 PM

Hurricane Gustav weakened to a tropical depression as it continued moving northwest Tuesday, sparing this city the brunt of its force but leaving damage across a broad swath of Louisiana and Mississippi.

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Panoramas: The Aftermath of Hurricane Gustav

As the storm dissipated on a path toward northeastern Texas, emergency officials throughout the state began coping with hundreds of thousands of power outages, roads blocked by limbs and debris, and damaged water and sewer facilities.

Suzanne Fournier, public affairs chief at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was online Tuesday, Sept. 2, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the current status in the Gulf regarding the levees, the evacuees and power in the affected areas.

A transcript follows.

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Suzanne Fournier: Hi, Suzanne Fournier here, US Army Corps of Engineers, ready to respond to your questions

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Fairfax, Va.: Why is Mayor Nagin telling people they can't return home yet?

Suzanne Fournier: I can't answer for the Mayor of New Orleans, but I can tell you that we are currently doing fly overs of the area and evaluating the conditions on the ground. Obviously, safety is our first concern and we don't want to advise anyone go back into an unsafe area

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McLean, Va.: What about the levees, the flood walls? Are they holding up? Did N.O. dodge a bullet? What's been done down there since Katrina to avert another disaster?

Suzanne Fournier: Bottom line, New Orleans dodged the bullet with the help of the hard work that everyone has accomplished since Katrina, but much remains to be done. New Orleans also remains highly vulnerable to large storms and the effective evacuation and planning that the local and state governments facilitated was an essential part of reducing the risk of loss of life.

The Corps of Engineers if three years into a six year construction of the entire levee system in New Orleans

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College Park, Md.: My question is how well do you think the levees held during this hurricane and what improvements can be made?

Suzanne Fournier: The Corps was satisfied with the way the federal levees held, there are still improvements needed and we are three years into this intense construction program. We want people to understand you can never prevent all flooding and communities need to depend upon their local emergency response guidance

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Washington, D.C.: How much did Katrina teach the authorities (FEMA, you all) about responding to disasters like these? Who is responsible for the relative smoothness this time around?

Suzanne Fournier: This time around there was far more partnering between local, state and federal agencies plus local levee boards. I believe this is the lesson that has been really taken to heart after Katrina. We are all in this together, sharing of information and modeling and plans are key to success during emergency operations.

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Annapolis, Md.: What specifically does the U.S. Army Corps do in this instance? What are you responsible for?

Suzanne Fournier: The Corps of Engineers has a standing role under the Federal Response Platform, we have the engineering role under FEMA to provide the nation with engineering expertise, shipment of commodities such as water, provide power for emergencies at hospitals and critical facilities, debris removal, temporary roofing and whatever else the federal government can provide. We have standing contracts to move quickly in time of need

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Columbus, Ohio : What is your agency's assessment of how the levees held up?

Suzanne Fournier: We are pleased with how the levees handled the hurricane, but we know that not all the levees were tested and not all of them are finished - so perhaps that is a good thing. The Industrial Canal was shown on all the media yesterday and we were within six inches of overtopping that levee. But it held and people's lives and property were saved.

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Schuyler, Va.: Some questions about the western Industrial Canal floodwall we saw so much of on television: 1. Are any specific areas of the western wall now considered weaker than others? 2. Is there any idea of designating or creating an adjacent overflow basin for emergency use? 3. The Mr. Go (Miss. River Gulf Outlet) is soon to be dammed and abandoned. Would the same hurricane then cause a lower water level in the Industrial Canal? I realize that is speculation without a careful study, but do you have a guess?

Suzanne Fournier: Wow, lots of questions and not sure I can adequately address them all and still do justice to the rest of the people who want answers. Each of these projects have timelines and plans in place. If I have time at the end, I'll go into more specifics if you want to re-ask the question.

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Alexandria, Va.: Yesterday they were talking about the water that was coming over the walls at the industrial park and they said it was over-tapping or something similar to that -- but not breaching. Can you explain the difference?

Suzanne Fournier: Sure - the water was overtopping the walls. It simply means that there was just too much water in the canal and it was overflowing. Much like a bath tub - if you fill it too full it will overflow.

A breach is a break, if you get too much pressure against a levee or floodwall, something is going to give. If you over overtopping long enough, the soil on the backside of the wall will scour or undercut the wall or levee. This is engineering stuff, but hopefully that helps to explain.

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Washington, D.C.: When will power be restored in New Orleans?

Suzanne Fournier: Honestly, I can't answer this question.

We do have teams flying over right now and assessing the damage. We also have teams standing by to help restore power to the critical infrastructure and hospitals that may not have backup power capabilities. This is one of the Corps primary missions under FEMA. An unknown fact is that the Corps helped to restore Wall Street power after 9-11 in order to keep the US economic engine moving.

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Bethesda, Md.: Do you attend to the evacuees who are being put up in schools and inside stadiums and if so, what is the status of all those people? When will they be allowed to return home?

Suzanne Fournier: Red Cross has the primary mission to house evacuees. We are assisting with power generation needs as required at these facilities. We may have a temporary housing mission in the future, but that is dependent upon the needs and it would fall under FEMA.

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Washington, D.C.: Does the mayor get the go-ahead from you on when the people can go back home to New Orleans?

Suzanne Fournier: I don't get involved in the mayor's decisions. I'm sure he has a team of local, state and federal advisors.

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Washington, D.C.: As a former resident of northeast Iowa, I would like to know if the Corps of Engineers has ever conducted a study of the after-effects of any of their flood control projects that were built in the last 50 years. It seems to me that the Corps is willing to move dirt instantly without studying the long-term ramifications of any of their projects.

Suzanne Fournier: We have many studies that are based on watersheds and the many missions we support for water resources. This is a tough question to answer in a few words.

The most recent major study we've led is the IPET or Interagency Performance Evaluation Team Report which is 150 academia, government, industry and Corps experts who looked at what occurred, what we could have done different and what needed to occur immediately to repair New Orleans for the next hurricane season. This resulted in floodwalls and levees being restored to their pre-Katrina stage before the June 1, 2006 start of hurricane season. We are three years into a six-year construction program to improve New Orleans to the 100-year level hurricane protection system by 2011. The New Orleans hurricane and storm damage reduction system is the best in its history and has proved resilient.

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Chantilly, Va.: In your estimation, how many stayed and rode out the storm and didn't evacuate?

Suzanne Fournier: I don't have any information on this - sorry

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Baltimore, Md.: I've read that most of the Texas ports are now open, but they may be a few days out in Louisiana and Mississippi. When will they be up and ready?

Suzanne Fournier: The Mississippi River is closed from Baton Rouge to the Mississippi Delta pending surveys which are being done today and tomorrow. The Gulf Intercoastal Waterway is closed from New Orleans to Panama City pending surveys. Some of the individual ports across the Gulf Coast are also conducting surveys.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Suzanne,From a former CENWS Blue Roofer, thanks for doing this chat. I saw some images of houses in flooded sections of N.O. with nice, tight blue tarp on top. Guess our installation instructions are worth something after all. Any estimate as to when the temp power/roof/building missions will begin, and when the ice and water teams will move?

Essayons!

Suzanne Fournier: Our modeling estimates that the Louisianna homeowners will require about 25,000 temporary blue roofs and we are sending six trucks of ice to a shelter in Alexandria, Louisiana. We are prepared to send more water and ice when we get the request from FEMA.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why can't the dry side of levees and storm walls be built to hold up under standing water, just like the wet side? Is this just a matter of cost, or are there engineering problems involved in building a symmetrical barrier?

Suzanne Fournier: Good Question -- We've already repaired or constructed 220 miles of levees in New Orleans. I think what you are asking is why can't we make levees and floodwalls stronger. These decisions are engineering designs based on the best science to construct levees in challenging terrain, limited real estate, within city limits and within taxpayer dollars allowed. Armoring levees is what engineers call this, but it is costly and requires a lot of concrete - just isn't possible, efficient or cost-effective at all locations.

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Alexandria, Va.: Frankly, I could care less about the levees. What has the government done to re-forest and repair the NATURAL methods to prevent flooding and storm surge?

Are there plans to return coastal salt marshes to their once natural state?

Thanks.

Suzanne Fournier: Actually a lot has been done, there is a study we are working in concert with State and local partners which is called the LA Coastal Protection Restoration project. Providing hurricane protection with natural means is always a viable solution and we are exploring many alternatives.

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Oslo, Blue Norway: The media reports are inconsistent: There is a barge that hit a large vessel stuck on a pipe/bar near the train bridge, but what about the two other vessels "USNS American Explorer" and "USNS Courier" that are obviously stuck in the PUMP facility and were delivered from NDRF Marad Ghost Fleet less than a month ago?

Suzanne Fournier: I can't speculate on the actual vessels because I don't have all that information yet. I know some barges were visible when our commanders left their bunkers as reported in the media. The question about barges being properly secured comes up frequently during hurricane events.

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Army Corps Florida Flood: I once read an article (Mens Journal?) about a flood in Florida that killed dozens of people when an Army Corps levee broke.

How have past levee breaks such as this and Katrina affected the Corps preventative measures to prevent levee breakage?

Thanks.

Suzanne Fournier: I don't know anything about the event you are referencing. One of the problems we face in the Corps is that because we have the expertise on levees and we are out floodfighting--such as in the Midwest Flooding-- we have become the face of levees. Most levees are not federal levees and we have no oversight on them. Congress just put authority for us to do more in this area in the last Water Resources Development Act, but we don't have funding yet to support more active involvement.

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Glendale, Calif..: I've read that an investigation is still going on about some pumps at the drainage canals in the city -- alleging that the pumps have not been tested. But I am also hearing that these pumps worked during Gustav. Which is right? Did hydraulic pumps run during the storm?

Suzanne Fournier: Absolutely worked!!! Yes there were some initial problems, but unfortunately this continues to get media attention and cause concern for local residents. We have confidence in the pumps.

Well -- I am signing off, hope I was able to answer your questions.

Regards,

Suzanne Fournier

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