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Storm Season Stirs Up Levee Fears in New Orleans

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Storm Season Stirs Up Levee Fears in New Orleans

Katrina & Beyond

Storm Season Stirs Up Levee Fears in New Orleans

Storm Season Stirs Up Levee Fears in New Orleans

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10265720/10268887" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently tested pumps at the Orleans Avenue flood canal in New Orleans. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hide caption

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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently tested pumps at the Orleans Avenue flood canal in New Orleans.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Clearing the Corps

A recent investigation cleared the Army Corps of Engineers of wrongdoing in a controversial deal it made to try to make New Orleans safe during the last hurricane season.

Newly installed, 30-foot-tall flood gates at the mouth of the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans are designed to close and keep a storm surge from rushing up the canal and flooding New Orleans neighborhoods. David Schaper, NPR hide caption

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David Schaper, NPR

Newly installed, 30-foot-tall flood gates at the mouth of the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans are designed to close and keep a storm surge from rushing up the canal and flooding New Orleans neighborhoods.

David Schaper, NPR

Despite the new, post-Katrina measures, a recent thunderstorm in New Orleans renewed fears among hurricane-weary locals, like Nathaniel Coleman, who fear the city's levees will fail like they did in the wake of Katrina. Walter Watson, NPR hide caption

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Walter Watson, NPR

Col. Jeff Bedey is a commander assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans. He oversees all levee and flood-wall repairs and improvements, and he says the Corps is making progress all around New Orleans. Walter Watson, NPR hide caption

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Walter Watson, NPR

Workers at the 17th Street Canal install these huge pipes with the pumps. David Schaper, NPR hide caption

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David Schaper, NPR

Workers at the 17th Street Canal install these huge pipes with the pumps.

David Schaper, NPR

Two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, residents are worried that the city's levees and pumps are still not up to facing the summer storm season.

A recent thunderstorm that dumped nearly five inches of rain on the city in just a couple of hours turned streets and intersections into waterways. One 83-year-old woman had to be rescued from her inundated car.

But such storms are not uncommon in New Orleans, and the city's apparent vulnerability concerns residents.

"I looked out the door, and the water was halfway up to my tires there," said Herbert M.C. Carver III, a high school teacher.

Carver, who by night is a lead singer and percussionist in the Original Pin Stripe Brass Band, said he had to move his car to higher ground during the May 4 storm. He blames some of the city's pumps, which he said failed during the thunderstorm.

"The pumps have to work – if the pump's not working, nothing is going to work. It's going to flood," he said.

City officials are downplaying what happened May 4.

"In the midst of that rainfall event, we had a mechanical device that failed," said Marcia St. Martin, executive director of New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. "It took several minutes to switch to a backup system, and then we were able to begin pumping again."

Sitting in the control room of the century-old Pumping Station No. 6, one of the largest in North America, St. Martin said the city-owned electrical plant, which powers some of the massive pumps, failed during the storm. Within 25 minutes, she said, backup generators had the pumps back in action.

She called the power failure "an anomaly" and pointed out that the incident was the first major outage at the electrical plant since it was built in 1902. St. Martin said the problem has been resolved, so next time the generators will kick in immediately.

Fear of Failures

But fluke or not, with the June 1 hurricane season looming, the thunderstorm renewed a sense of dread for many in New Orleans.

"Guess what? When the next hurricane comes, this city (won't) ... be any more prepared than it was last time," said resident Nathaniel Coleman as he fished for catfish and bass on the banks of the Mississippi.

A recent survey found that he's not alone. Fear that the levees will give way is a top concern among New Orleans residents. A majority of those polled said the rebuilt levees won't be strong enough to protect their neighborhoods in another hurricane.

Col. Jeff Bedey is commander of the Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans. He's in charge of overseeing all the repairs to flood walls, levees and pumping stations that failed during Katrina. He says progress is being made.

"The system that protects the greater NOLA area is stronger today than it was August 29th of 2005," Bedey said.

But Bedey admitted he has his own concerns going into this hurricane season. He said many of the floodwall repairs are temporary and will need to be replaced. Furthermore, many of the levees are still not high enough to prevent a Katrina-sized storm surge, he said.

"I absolutely understand why people of this community would be concerned," he said.

He compares the job ahead to a marathon that has just begun.

"The system is nowhere near where we want it to be," he said.

Erosion and Natural Barriers

In 2006, Bob Rea, a professor of engineering at the University of California-Berkley, wrote a report for the National Science Foundation that was highly critical of the Katrina levee failures. He said the greatest threat to the city now is from water going over the levees.

Rea also sees some serious problems with some of the ongoing levee repairs. On behalf of National Geographic, he performed ground and aerial inspections of levee and flood-wall repair work. Rea found what he said looks like significant erosion on a rebuilt levee along the Mississippi River Gulf outlet.

"When we flew along that stretch of the levees, you could see very deep gullies that appeared to be eroded initially by rainwater, but you could see evidence of possible seepage," he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers said some erosion is to be expected from rainwater, and that vegetation growth will help the levee heal itself. The Corps also said there is no evidence of seepage on the levee inspected by Rea.

Ivor Van Heerden, deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center, was even more critical of the Corps' work on the levees. He said a key element is missing from the Army's attempt to restore the coastal area.

"Barrier islands – we know barrier islands are a speed bump for the surge, and they trip up those very, very large and dangerous waves associated with Hurricanes," he said. "They actually can reduce the surge by about three feet, and ... the difference of three feet (could mean) whether you die or don't die."

Van Heerden also said most of the work by the Corps has been done in the east, and that the city's west flank remains exposed and vulnerable.

"If we got a Category 3 (hurricane) that came west of New Orleans, up the central part of the coast, it would swamp all of New Orleans ... and seriously impact the oil and gas structures off shore," he said.

'You Can't Be Scared of Everything'

About 100 yards from where the 17th Street Canal burst and devastated New Orleans' Lakeview neighborhood, Jonathan Nemeth is putting finishing touches on renovations to a flooded-out home he bought five months after Katrina hit at a bargain-basement price: $140,000. He said the house was for sale before Katrina for $345,000.

That kind of a deal makes it worth the risk of living so close to a flood wall that failed, Nemeth said.

"It was affordable for me. That's the reason that I bought it, and I feel confident that over time everything will be up to par," he said. "I feel this is probably already one of the more fortified areas."

Nemeth's next-door neighbors have returned, but most the Lakeview area is scarred by vacant, broken-down homes.

A few blocks to the east, Charles and Roxanne Rogers are among the few who have returned on their block. And Roxanne isn't quite comfortable yet.

"Do we feel safe? No," she said, laughing. "No."

But she says it's their home.

"It's just, you know, that life goes on. You can't be scared of everything," she said.

Pointing to recent news of wildfires and tornadoes devastating other towns, she added that there's bound to be some level of risk no matter where you live.