Katrina & Beyond

New Orleans Levee Breaks Repaired, Pumping Begins

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In New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closes breaks in both the London Avenue Canal and the 17th Street Canal. Engineers are now pumping water from the flooded city back into Lake Ponchartrain. Now engineers face one of the grimmest realities of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, helping to collect the dead.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

In New Orleans, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced yesterday that it had closed breaches in both the London Avenue Canal and the 17th Street Canal. Engineers are now pumping water from the flooded city back into Lake Pontchartrain. They are still working to fix the city's pumping stations.

Colonel RICHARD WAGENAAR (District Commander, Army Corps of Engineers): There's 22 major pumping stations in the entire city. We're trying to track all of those, get a status on them, and get them all operational.

MONTAGNE: That's Colonel Richard Wagenaar, the district commander of the Corps of Engineers in New Orleans. He says his team installed the auxiliary pump, which is drawing water out of the city, because it will be awhile before New Orleans is dry.

Col. WAGENAAR: I'm sure there are going to be certain areas in the city that are extremely low or that were severely damaged, where businesses will not be able to operate for three to six months, at least.

MONTAGNE: Even then, Colonel Wagenaar says, the focus will shift to fixing the infrastructure that failed to protect New Orleans from flooding.

Col. WAGENAAR: Probably we will be working anywhere from one to two years to address the drainage systems. Why did the walls not support the design that was out there? Just a lot of work that would prevent this in the future.

MONTAGNE: In the meantime, engineers face one of the grimmest tasks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: helping to collect the dead.

Col. WAGENAAR: Although it's somewhat sad, as this water moves towards the pump houses, bodies that have not been recovered may end up moving towards the pump houses. And we are coordinating with sewer and water boards to have police officers and search-and-rescue elements near the major filtering screens in the event that there's a body that must be recovered.

MONTAGNE: Throughout the crisis, Colonel Wagenaar says his team has not flinched from doing its job, despite some great losses of their own.

Col. WAGENAAR: I have people in my district that have lost everything and have been working for the last week, 24 hours a day, with their families living in motels or having been evacuated, to try and repair a project that was probably one of the most challenging projects we've ever undertaken.

MONTAGNE: Colonel Richard Wagenaar is district commander of the US Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans.

After visiting Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday, President Bush is calling for a "tidal wave of compassion for hurricane victims." Today, he is discussing relief efforts with his Cabinet, charity groups and lawmakers and he'll make an appeal for schools to accept young evacuees.

The federal response to Hurricane Katrina has drawn criticism from many as too little too late. Earlier this morning, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy joined the chorus of voices criticizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In an interview with NPR, he called for Michael Brown to be relieved of his responsibilities as the head of FEMA.

Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): At some time, people have to have accountability. I mean, they're supposed to be--they're part of Homeland Security. Wonder if this had been an al-Qaeda strike. They had four days notice and they couldn't handle it. And I think that this has been an absolute disaster.

MONTAGNE: President Bush has defended FEMA and Michael Brown.

Senator Kennedy also joined other Democrats who are calling for FEMA to be broken out of the Homeland Security Department and returned to its former role as an independent Cabinet-level entity.

And in New Orleans, after struggling to get crime under control, police are dealing with a new issue--where to put the people they've arrested. The jails in New Orleans are flooded and prisoners have been moved to a holding facility set up at the city's bus and train terminal.

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