Isaac Aftermath: Did New Orleans Pass The Test?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, Weekend Edition Sunday guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with Mark Schleifstein — an environment reporter for The Times-Picayune — about storm preparations, the improved levee system and the potential for drought relief.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. The remnants of Hurricane Isaac are still bringing rain to parts of Mississippi and the Ohio Valley. And areas along the Gulf Coast are still recovering from the drenching storm's slow pass over that area. For more, Mark Schleifstein joins us. He covers the environment for the Times-Picayune, and he's speaking to us from his home in Metairie. Mark, billions have been spent trying to protect your area from the disastrous floods that occurred seven years ago from Katrina. Can you tell yet what worked and what didn't?

MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, we can tell certainly what worked, and that is the new improvements to the New Orleans metropolitan area levee system that were made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, in a lot of locations east of New Orleans, those levees have had floodwalls put on top of them and they're now twice as tall and much stronger than they were before. And for those purposes, this storm was a minor storm. The problem is with areas outside of this newly improved levee system, where indeed some public officials are saying that that levee system itself may have added to the height of storm surge that bypassed it and moved into their areas. Others do not, but it remains to be seen. And now the Army Corps of Engineers today announced that that they are going to do a study to see whether or not that's true. Several of these areas were on line to get additional flood protection, but of course we're talking millions to billions of dollars for that, and in the aftermath of Katrina, the big chunk of money, $14.6 billion, went to the New Orleans area and not to them. So, they're still waiting.

WERTHEIMER: In areas where you did have serious flooding, is it your impression that the region was better prepared this time, that perhaps the people that lived in flooded areas were a little bit safer than they were in Katrina?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: I think that's basically true. I think one of the problems with our safety system involving hurricanes is that people still don't understand that storm surge has a way of doing things that are completely unexpected. And this storm is a perfect example of that. Storm surge was higher in some locations than people who were on the ground living in the homes expected it to be. But in general, people were rescued fairly quickly, wherever they could be, except in one small area where the intense flooding was occurring at the height of a hurricane and people just couldn't get in no matter what. And those people had been warned to get out in advance.

WERTHEIMER: People upstream could really use some more rain. Is there any rain left in Isaac, do you think?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: Not much in Isaac. Isaac itself is expected to be going through Illinois and Indiana and moving east even more quickly. It's joined with a frontal system, and that frontal system will bring some rainfall and maybe some bad weather over the next day or two. But in terms of what Isaac was, a storm that created 20 inches of rain in New Orleans, I think those other areas are expecting maybe two or three inches of rain.

WERTHEIMER: Mark Schleifstein is an environmental reporter for the Times-Picayune. He joined us from his home in Metairie, Louisiana. Thank you very much.


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