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At ENR presstime on Sept. 6, the army of federal, military and private forces marshalled to beat back New Orleans’ lethal floodwaters could take heart that at least one levee was plugged (see related story). But that small victory is just the beginning of what will be a long and expensive war to rebuild billions of dollars in damaged infrastructure in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and win back public confidence in government’s long-term ability to protect its coastlines and its citizens.

Damage estimates immediately after the Aug. 28 storm mirrored that of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, about $25 billion. But with the subsequent breaching of New Orleans’ levees and a clearer picture of other severe coastal damage, some were already speaking of damages exceeding $100 billion. "As a result, insurers will be grappling with the financial, credit, and operational implications of this storm for some time," Standard & Poor’s reported on Sept. 1. Like ENR, S&P is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos.

In Charge. Corps’ Wagenaar is leading New Orleans District efforts. (Photo by Tom Sawyer for ENR)

While the nation’s eye was focused on the 17th Street Canal breach, Col. Richard P. Wagenaar, chief engineer of the New Orleans District of the Army Corps of Engineers, managed remedial efforts with about 10 other Corps staffers. They rode out the storm in the district office, dubbed "the bunker," on the Mississippi River in uptown New Orleans.

The New Orleans District is officially classed as a "victim district" by the Corps. Its duties have been heavily supported by sister districts, mostly working remotely, to enable local staff to put their operation and personal lives back together. Early on, Wagenaar said only 70% of the 1,270 personnel assigned to his command were accounted for. The trappings and terminology of the besieged Corps "war room" evoke an embattled combat unit unit in the midst of a campaign.

Plugging Leaks. Boh Bros. crews worked swiftly to fill levee breaches, initially without a written contract. (Photo by Michael Goodman for ENR)

Although many locals saw the Corps as the symbol of all of New Orleans’ problems, its officials were fast hiring local contractors to fix the failing infrastructure. Boh Bros. Construction Co. was one of the first to move in to work on the breached levees. "They needed helicopters to make a reconnaissance to see their yard. They hadn’t seen it yet," says Maj. Gen. Donald T Riley, deputy chief of the Corps.

Boh suffered as yet undetermined losses in equipment and materials, says Robert S. Boh, president. "It is not feasible to haul everything off if there is a storm in the Gulf, and by the time it is close enough to be an imminent threat we wouldn’t be able to get it out. We had a lot of equipment go under water." Boh says he is drawing from equipment fleets in Baton Rouge and southwest Louisiana.

Firms called in to help offered some of their own ingenuity. Bud Ahern, vice chairman of CH2M Hill Cos., Denver, noted that one of his company’s engineers lent the Corps more than 2,000 large heavy bags to use as sandbags for levee repair that had been formerly used for hazardous waste disposal at U.S. Dept. of Energy waste cleanup sites.

Security was a tremendous concern for the contractor during the first week of response, he added. During a trip to its equipment yard in New Orleans, a Boh convoy heard gunfire, forcing workers undercover. Police killed several of the alleged shooters.

Even without the security issues, working conditions have been less than ideal. Emergency contracts have been more handshake than signed document, with funding issues largely unresolved. "The Corps started calling us Tuesday evening (Aug. 30) asking us to go to work," Boh says. "We worked until Sept. 5 on a verbal over the phone."

With its local office in some peril, Boh quips that the firm is "managing with stone tablets and chisels." At one point officials had to helicopter to its building roof and break in to retrieve computer files. Despite massive interruptions to its workload, Boh says its contract to rehabilitate runways at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport was nearly done when Katrina hit. "The airport did not go under water," Boh says. "They are landing planes on the runway."

Still Under Water. Corps officials think it could take a month or more to drain New Orleans. (Photo by Michael Goodman for ENR)

The Corps is working at breakneck speed to get contractors moving to drain greater New Orleans, awarding a broad range contracts by Sept. 6 to Shaw Group Inc. and Kellogg Brown & Root, says Chuck Camillo, spokesman. "Contracts are being let out of our Memphis District office."

Corps Chief Lt. Gen. Carl Strock says the Corps was "still trying to save lives." That remains a top priority as the agency, under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), focuses its work in three areas: draining New Orleans, closing breaches in levees and directly supporting the military. Strock is optimistic that officials would soon be moving to the recovery phase. For now, the Corps is "creating conditions for the recovery to begin."

Under heavy criticism for moving too slow, FEMA also has began letting contracts to cope with relocations of thousands of flooded-out and otherwise displaced New Orleans residents away from the city limits. An agency spokesman could not confirm firms that were to be awarded contracts, but sources point to Shaw Group, Baton Rouge; CH2M Hill, Denver; Fluor Corp., Aliso Viejo, Calif.; and possibly Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., and Bechtel Corp., that have existing emergency management contracts under which they will receive task orders.

Ch2M Hill’s Ahern says the firm’s contract, possibly valued at $100 million, would involve task orders to provide or manage temporary shelter for thousands of evacuees that moved to Baton Rouge or are being transferred from Houston’s Astrodome to Galveston, Texas. "We’re working with Fluor to build a camp in Montgomery, Ala.," he adds.

Burton Fried, chairman of LVI Environmental Services, a major environmental abatement and demolition contractor, says it had 800 employees in the Gulf Coast region the day after the storm, performing cleanup work for mostly private sector clients such as hospitals and hotels. He expects at least 200 more workers to arrive imminently, and says he has "5,000 on reserve" throughout the firm. Mold contamination will be a big problem soon. "In this environment, which is wet and warm without power, this will be an issue," Fried notes (see related story).

As the region’s most dire problems are beginning to be addressed, engineering and construction groups are joining government agencies in looking at long-term ramifications of the hurricane disaster.

The American Society of Civil Engineers and The Infrastructure Security Partnership hosted a roundtable Sept. 6 in Washington, D.C., for non-governmental organizations to brainstorm ways the construction and design community can respond to the storm’s aftermath. More than 60 people attended.

Corps chief Strock emphasized that now is not the time to assess blame for the government’s response. He wants everyone’s full energy focused on the work ahead. "We will see terrible things that we don’t know about yet," he said, outlining short, medium and long-term challenges. "We are just beginning to understand what is needed" and will prioritize tasks next.

Strock said debris disposal alone will be very costly. He estimates 13 million cu yd in Mississippi and 12 million cu yd in Louisiana must be removed. It will be a "challenging and complex job," he says.

The rebuilding effort will also place huge pressure on the need for materials, including plywood, he says. Michael Gibson, executive director of the Shreveport, La., chapter of the Associated General Contractors, notes competition for materials from Florida, which is still rebuilding after serious hurricanes this year and last.

Lenny Kotkiewicz, the Corps’ chief of civil emergency management, says debris cleanup alone will cost billions of dollars. As of Sept. 6, the Corps was given $2.6 billion worth of work by FEMA, alone. "The billions of dollars of missions will probably last for several years," he adds.

Industry Reaction

ASCE, the American Water Works Association and others are trying to send teams to the region. But government officials warn that any team must be fully contained and provide its own living accommodations, food, shelter, and water, among other things.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology says it will study various issues that affected building performance, including whether wind force requirements need to be altered and if more damage resulted from high winds or storm surges.

Related Links:
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  • Corps �Unwatering� Operation Begins To Make Progress
  • Some Repairs Under Way For Roads, Ports and Airport
  • Comprehensive Regional Plan Needed for Reconstruction
  • City�s Pumping Stations Won�t Be Dry for a Month
  • Battered Gulf Coast Facilities Are Coming Back Quickly
  • New Orleans Water System May Be Out for a Year
  • Flooded Buildings Are Powerless Against Mold Growth
  • Sturdy Flood Defenses Shield U.K., Netherlands from Storms
  • Multimedia:
  • SlideShow:
    Hurricane Katrina Aftermath

    A Long Road to Storm Relief
    click here to view

  • Podcast:
    Flood Protection: Looking Ahead
    click here
  • Experts are discussing the idea of creating an Infrastructure Support Integration Center, an interagency group to handle key infrastructure recovery issues. It will coordinate offers for assistance and conduct contractor outreach. Kotkiewicz says it is not known when all of the water will be out of New Orleans, but "it will be measured in months," he says.

    There have been no reports of large-scale problems on the Mississippi River. Locks and dams appear undamaged, Kotkiewicz says. Officials may bring building materials and equipment by river because Interstate 10 is in bad shape.

    Local industry officials and national groups are working to raise funds for displaced firms and individuals. Gibson says the Shreveport AGC is holding job fairs there to attract evacuees and are "passing out flyers in shelters." But he says many local professionals and craft workers have fled to safer locales and he worries if there will be enough engineers to do building assessments. Gibson also worries whether there will be enough insurance coverage to fund rebuilding.

    David T. Downey, managing director of American Institute of Architect’s Center for Communities by Design, says about 265 firms and more than 500 individual members have been displaced in the region. AIA is hoping to finalize by Sept. 7 a free resource matching program on its website. Others suggest waiving federal procurement rules, including Davis Bacon wage requirements.

    Gibson adds that new relocation areas such as Baton Rouge, which have taken in thousands of new inhabitants, will pose additional infrastructure problems. "Reality will set in with local leaders in the next few months," he says. "Baton Rouge facilities will have to be built in record time. It will be one heck of a challenge."

    atrina will be known as a rainstorm that emptied an American urban icon, transforming its residents to motley refugees in a mismanaged exodus reminiscent of a Yellow Fever panic during the early 19th Century. She will be known for producing a storm surge that pushed the Gulf of Mexico farther into Mississippi than anyone can remember, despite what experts claim were largely unremarkable windspeeds.