Katrina & Beyond

Engineers in New Orleans Test Levees

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The Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans are simulating hurricane conditions that caused levees to fail two years ago in order to test whether dozens of new pumps in two of the city's canals can hold back a storm surge.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Tropical Storm Erin is moving in on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Meteorologists are also watching Hurricane Dean in the Atlantic. With hurricane season well underway, engineers in New Orleans are busy testing pumps and inspecting levee walls to see if that city is safe.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from New Orleans.

CARRIE KAHN: Lieutenant General Robert Van Antwerp stands on the banks of the 17th Street Canal. He points to the five pumps roaring behind him and says the city is safer because of the massive machines, but the recently appointed chief of the Army Corps of Engineers says he understands if not everyone believes him.

Lieutenant General ROBERT VAN ANTWERP (Army Corps of Engineers): In some ways we're asking them to trust us because they can't see - they can't get that close to the project, but what we intend to do is deliver for their safety.

KAHN: So far what the corps has delivered are 11 new pumps now installed at the entrance of two huge canals. The pumps are designed to push excess rainwater draining from city streets out of the canals and into Lake Pontchartrain.

This week Van Antwerp showed off the new pumps to a group of Democratic Congress members touring the Gulf Coast. House Majority Whip James Clyburn was satisfied.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): I think that they are - they know what they're doing. I think we've all had an experience to know what to work from. I'm pretty confident.

KAHN: A few miles down the road, Army Corps engineer Dan Bradley oversees testing of new pumps at the London Avenue Canal. Breaches here and at the 17th Street Canal accounted for much of the flooding of New Orleans.

Mr. DAN BRADLEY (Army Corps of Engineers): Well, it's amazing. It's an engineering feat that has never been accomplished before, that the Corps of Engineers has promised to do and they've delivered on time.

KAHN: Bradley stands on a bridge spanning the wide canal, marveling at huge floodgates the Corps installed in the past year. He says if a hurricane hits, the gates will be closed shut. That way storm water from Lake Pontchartrain won't be able to back into the rain-soaked canal the way it did during Katrina.

Mr. BRADLEY: This structure was not here so the level in the canal rose to about plus 11, all the way through to the city. So there was no way - until the storm surge passed, there's no way to get the water back out.

KAHN: But UC Berkeley Engineer Bob Bea, who led an independent study of the levee breaches, says once the gates are shut the pumps are critical in keeping water levels low in the canals.

MR. BOB BEA: (Engineer): So if these pumps fail, you can't expect to see dramatic and potentially disastrous flooding in the low-lying parts of the city.

KAHN: Pumping water out is only one piece of New Orleans' complex flood control plans. Tomorrow the corps plans to test the strength of the walls at the London Avenue Canal. Engineers will close the floodgates and let water rise. They want to see how a 150-foot section holds up under pressure. Engineer Bea says the fact that Army Corps is still doing such a test two years after Katrina proves more inquiry into the levee bridges is needed. He wants Congress to appoint an 8/29 Commission similar to the one assembled after 9/11. August 29th was the day Katrina hit. The idea is catching on in New Orleans.

Ms. SANDY ROSENTHAL (Levees.org): Hi, this is Chester. He's just noisy.

KAHN: In New Orleans' stately uptown district, Sandy Rosenthal quiets her tiny dachshund Chester. Rosenthal formed the group Levees.org to lobby for the 8/29 Commission and to keep a close eye on the Army Corps of Engineers, which she concedes is doing a better job.

Ms. ROSENTHAL: On the other hand, this is - these are still the people that we need to protect - need to depend on for our flood protection. And we need more than good intentions. We need good results.

KAHN: Corps officials realize they still have plenty of critics, especially after it was revealed that faulty pumps hastily installed last year came from a Florida firm with ties to the Bush family. A congressional investigation cleared the Corps of wrongdoing. But Lieutenant General Van Antwerp says he hopes the new pumps and floodgates will help restore the public's confidence.

Lt. Gen. VAN ANTWERP: We have done our part. We've done our best engineering and science. That's our commitment to the people down here.

KAHN: The pump and levee wall testing is expected to be completed by next week.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, New Orleans.

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