Engineers Focus on Damaged Levees

Breaks in two levees overwhelmed by Katrina's storm surge caused most of New Orleans' flooding problems. Efforts to return the floodwaters to Lake Pontchartrain are complicated and time is of the essence. Al Naomi, senior project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, describes the situation for Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

New Orleans is mostly under water this morning, up to 20 feet deep in some places. The flooding happened after two of the levees that are designed to protect the city broke yesterday. Muddy water rushed to fill the streets that earlier appeared to have escaped major damage. The job of fixing the levees falls to Al Naomi and his team at the New Orleans District Army Corps of Engineers, and he joins me now.

Good morning.

Mr. AL NAOMI (New Orleans District Army Corps of Engineers): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: When we spoke yesterday morning, you were pretty sure that this problem would be fixed, you know, in due time without...

Mr. NAOMI: It will be. It's just--it's taking--it's hard getting equipment into the site because of the flooding, and so we're having to be somewhat innovative. And we're trying some large sandbags and we're gonna be trying some other methods, too, I think. We're gonna keep working the problem till we solve it.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, we talk about large sandbags; we're talking about a very long stretch, about a football field size.

Mr. NAOMI: Well, these are very large sandbags. Part of the problem is that it's not just long, it's also eroded down fairly deeply, to 26 feet in depth in some places, and so it's going to take an inordinate number of sandbags. So we're looking not just at sandbags, but other materials that we can use to fill the hole.

MONTAGNE: We've heard up to 3,000-pound sandbags.

Mr. NAOMI: Yes, they're very large. They need equipment to raise them. It's just not something that you normally would carry as a person.

MONTAGNE: You know, there's a lot of damage being done even as you're trying to fix these levees.

Mr. NAOMI: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Is it expected to get worse today?

Mr. NAOMI: I don't think so. I think that, if anything, at this particular location, you may see water start leaving the city through this opening because the water level in the lake is dropping. And so you'll have water starting to exit. The only reason we would really want to close this gap at this particular time is because there's a rather large pumping station further up the canal that we would like to turn on. And when that pumping station starts, it raises the water level in the canal a foot or two, which would cause the water to flow back in the city. So we really want this gap closed so we can get this pumping station working. It does a much more efficient job of getting the water out of the city than just letting the water flow through this gap.

MONTAGNE: But is there a chance that other levees will break?

Mr. NAOMI: The pressure's gone. I mean, what causes the break was a very high storm surge. These levees were designed to handle a Category 3 event, and this certainly was not a Category 3 event. And they just became overwhelmed by the strength of this storm surge. And the storm surge itself caused a very high stage, much higher than the flood walls were designed to withstand.

MONTAGNE: How much worse can it get there in New Orleans as far as the levee system goes?

Mr. NAOMI: Oh, I don't know. I think the worst thing is not so much that you're going to get more water, which I don't think you necessarily will. The worst thing is the duration of the flooding. We have to get the water out of the city as rapidly as possible. And that's really the worst thing that can happen now is that we've got to find a way to get the water out, and we're working that issue even as we speak. I mean, we're going to be moving to cut openings to allow the water to escape more rapidly, to get the pumping stations back online that have been damaged so that they can start removing the water. They are really the most efficient way to get the water out of the city.

MONTAGNE: Where does the water flow out to when 80 percent of the city is already under water?

Mr. NAOMI: Well, the water will flow out into Lake Pontchartrain, where it came from, because the city--it came in from Lake Pontchartrain when the elevation of Lake Pontchartrain was very high, when the storm surge was in the lake. And the levees then--when it came through the breach, it filled the city. And now that the lake is dropping, we have to get the water back into the lake where it belongs. And so we have to cut openings to facilitate this or pump it out with the existing pumping stations. 'Cause since this water is now higher than the lake level, we've gotta let gravity do some of the work.

MONTAGNE: Al Naomi is with the New Orleans District Army Corps of Engineers.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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