Repair work at 17 St. (above) will not be sufficient to provide needed pumping capacity, Corps commander says. (Photo by
courtesy USACE)

The Army Corps of Engineers has revised its estimate for completing the interim gates and temporary pumps on two of the three outfall canals in New Orleans to mid-to-late June.  Canal projects to block storm surge from moving into the battered outfall canals and the city could have been finished by the June 1 deadline were it not for different problems that created delays at the 17th Street and London Avenue Canals, said Col. Lewis Setliff III, commander of Task Force Guardian, whose mission is to restore the hurricane protection levee system to pre-Katrina levels by June 1, the official beginning of hurricane season.

At the Orleans Avenue Canal, construction of both the interim gate closure and pumps is on schedule and will be complete by June 1. The Corps will not provide the promised pumping capacity at the 17th Street Canal, but it has guaranteed protection against a storm surge.

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  • “Because of space restrictions at the site, what activities we thought we were going to do parallel will now have to be in sequence, so installing the pumps will be delayed about two weeks,” Setliff said. “There is a brace on the bridge so we can install sheet pile to keep out the storm surge, and we have placed temporary pumps to pump around the sheet pile.” Since the pumping capacity at 17th Street will only be 400 to 500 cfs, and the pump station located one mile inland has a capacity of 10,000 cfs, there is a potential risk that the city will flood if storm water can’t be pumped out once the sheet pile is in place. “Our priority is to protect against storm surge, and there is a very low probability that the conditions will exist in the first two weeks of June for us to place sheet pile,” Setliff said.

    The most active part of the hurricane season normally begins in August. However, Tropical Storm Cindy hit the New Orleans area in early July last year and was followed less than a week later by the near-miss of Hurricane Dennis, which made landfall in Florida.

    Conditions at the London Avenue Canal are almost the opposite of those at 17th Street, Setliff said. The pump installation is on schedule, but the gated closure structure will be about two and a half weeks late. “We had some problems with the installation of the sill that holds the gate, so we actually had to step back and re-do it,” he said.

    Col. Setliff (Photo courtesy of USACE)

     “We had difficulty driving the sheet pile. The integrity of that structure came into question, so we pulled it out and started again.” In the event of a storm surge, the Corps plans to install sheet pile at London Avenue as well.

    The Corps also cited delays on the projects due to the time required to acquire sheet piling, weather conditions and the acquisition of the necessary real estate rights of way at the construction sites.

     The change in completion dates for gates and pumps should not be equated with the Corps having “missed” the deadline for levee repairs, Setliff said. “The construction schedule for pumps and gates is different than restoring the system to the appropriate level of protections,” he said.  The Corps and its contractors have been working around the clock since October to repair approximately 170 miles of damaged levees and flood walls to restore the system to pre-Katrina levels of protection. 

    “Everyone is trying to do the best they can to provide the best protection they can as soon as they can,” Setliff said. “These are very complex structures that have never been built before. In order to meet the time frame, we had a lot of what we call engineering-during-construction, a lot of modification and a very constricted work space as well.”

    Setliff said that the Corps’ safety record during this mission has been amazing. “We have had a total of five recordables in nine months with over $800 million worth of work, and I think the worst one was a broken bone,” he said. “We have $730 million in projects that will come in before June, and we’re down to these two right now. We are going to keep pushing because we understand the importance of these projects to the public.”