Leaders of the Army Corps of Engineers say the city's flood walls were in excellent shape before the storm but weren't designed to handle a hurricane of Katrina's magnitude.
In a phone briefing Sept. 1, the Army's Chief of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, addressed some of the issues that have surfaced about Corps-built structures around New Orleans. Strock said that the project that resulted in the levees along Lake Pontchartrain was designed to protect against a 200-to-300-year storm, which equates to about a Category 3 hurricane, but Katrina was more severe.
Al Naomi, senior project manager in the Corps' New Orleans District, says, "The [project's] design was not adequate for a storm of this nature." He adds that to cover a Category 5 storm, work on storm protection improvements would have had to start 20 or 25 years ago.
The levee breaches occurred in areas that were "in excellent condition" before the storm and were inspected, said Naomi. He said there was nothing the Corps could have done involving the completed floodwalls that could have prevented the breaches.
Another question concerned the allocation of national resources during a war. The war in Iraq has not had an impact on the Corps budget, said Strock. According to his analysis, Corps funding "has been fairly stable" since the early 1990s and the Corps has spent more than $300 million since 2002 on storm protection in the New Orleans area. "We were just caught by a storm of an intensity which exceeded the design of the [flood protection] project we have in place," he said.
Some Corps contracts in the area had been delayed, but Naomi says those contracts were not in the sections of the levees that failed.
Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost more than 1.2 million acres of wetlands, which act as a natural buffer against storms. But Strock contends that wetlands losses "did not have a significant impact" in the case of Katrina. He says that most of the losses of wetlands and barrier islands were south and west of the city, and not in Katrina's path.
Asked about the cost of the initial repairs and the longer-term work, Strock said, "We're doing everything humanly possible to stop the flow of water and it's going to cost what it's going to cost."
Walter Baumy, chief of engineering in the New Orleans District, says that a contract is under way at the breached 17th Street Canal, where the Corps plans to drive sheet piles to close the canal where it meets Lake Pontchartrain. He says the first sheet pile has been driven and he hopes that the canal will be closed sometime Sept. 1.
At the London Ave. Canal, which parallels the 17th Street Canal, Baumy says the Corps is working with contractors to get material to the site to fill in the gap. "Once we seal those two places," he says, "we should stop water going into the city."
After that, the next task will be to pump out the remaining water that has covered large parts of New Orleans. Baumy says the Corps is working with the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board to identify pumping stations to get into service quickly, then to get those stations dry and ready to pump. "We need to give them a dry place to work, " Baumy said, but didn't estimate how long the de-watering would take.
Strock says that as Lake Pontchartrain's level recedes, the water flows should stabilize--and should be nearly at that point now--and then become reversed.