Floodwaters poured into an already devastated district of New Orleans Friday as Hurricane Rita's outer bands began lashing the city, and its protective levees failed in at least two places.
With water overflowing repaired levees or pouring through gaps in them, the Army Corps of Engineers was locked in a battle to contain the flooding.
As Rita brought substantial rainfall for the first time since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city more than three weeks ago, water cascaded over a patched levee into the Ninth Ward, one of the New Orleans neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina. Dozens of blocks in the Ninth Ward were under water about three feet deep, and the flooding was spreading rapidly early Friday afternoon, officials said.
Water was also flowing over another of the city's levees, although not as dramatically, officials said.
The new flooding was not life-threatening, because residents of the Ninth Ward had already been evacuated as a result Hurricane Katrina. The neighborhood had been pumped dry only days before the latest flooding.
Col. Richard Wagenaar of the Army Corps of Engineers said the water level had quickly exceeded the height of the levees and could no longer be contained. He said repairs were hampered by deteriorating weather conditions, including 40-mph wind gusts, which made it impossible to put helicopters into the air to drop huge sandbags into the openings.
While other levees appeared to be holding, a wave of water 100 feet wide was gushing over a section of the Industrial Canal, which previously was breached by floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina. Officials attributed the new flooding to a higher-than-expected storm surge accompanied by rain from Hurricane Rita.
The 17th Street Canal levee that failed during Katrina appeared to be holding -- at least for the time being.
The Corps was trying to move trucks loaded with rocks, gravel and sand into position to carry out repairs on a breach in the Industrial Canal near the New Orleans shipyard, an engineer with the unit said.
In the Ninth Ward, where the water was waist-deep in places, the Army's 82nd Airborne Division pulled its Humvees out of the neighborhood because the floodwaters were getting too deep. The division has been assisting National Guard units and New Orleans police as they provide security.
In a briefing in Baton Rouge, a Corps officer said the new flooding was "disappointing for the Corps, but not totally unexpected," since "we knew we had weakened levees."
He said that after the damage caused by Katrina, the Corps had repaired the Industrial Canal so that it could contain water up to a seven-foot level. He said a storm surge of three to five feet had been expected, but the area was now dealing with a surge of more than seven feet.
"We're experiencing overtopping into the Ninth Ward," he said. There was also overtopping and "seepage" on the west bank of the Industrial Canal, he said.
"We didn't expect water levels to rise this quickly," said Stephen Browning of the Corps.
As the city braced for Hurricane Rita, authorities suspended operations to recover bodies left by the onslaught of Katrina. So far, at least 841 deaths have been attributed to Katrina in Louisiana. Across the Gulf Coast, the confirmed death toll from Katrina now stands at 1,078.
Branigin reported from Washington.