Engineers: Huge Wave Swamped Ninth Ward

Engineers and scientists are getting a better idea of exactly how the New Orleans area flooded. In addition to several breaks in the city's floodwalls, engineers now say the Ninth Ward in the eastern part of the city was hit by a huge wave coming over a levee.

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Engineers and scientists are now getting a better idea of exactly how the New Orleans area flooded. Early reports suggested that most of the water spilled in through some broken walls along the canals that run through town, but now engineers say the eastern part of town, including one of the very poorest sections, was hit by a huge wave coming over a levee. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

The steady leaking of water into downtown was bad, but areas to the east experienced something far more dramatic. On the other side of the Industrial Canal is the gritty Ninth Ward, an area called St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish. Henry Rodriguez is the president of St. Bernard Parish, population 67,000.

Mr. HENRY RODRIGUEZ (President, St. Bernard Parish): Our parish is totally devastated.

KESTENBAUM: Have you talked to people who were there?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Mister, I was here. It came up so fast, in about, I'd say, 30 minutes, we had eight feet of water on our first floor. We spent two nights sleeping on the roof. We have boats sitting on top of roofs. We have cars stuck in the roofs up on the houses. We have approximately 30,000 homes. There is not 10 homes in this parish that are liveable.

KESTENBAUM: One nursing home did not evacuate and the rapidly rising water apparently caught them by surprise. Rodriguez says about 35 bodies were found inside. So what happened? Major Murray Starkel is the deputy district commander for the US Army Corps of Engineers. He suspects a giant wall of water swept over a long levee that forms the northern boundary of these areas. Levees in town are relatively undamaged but this one had taken a hammering. And then there was the barge.

Major MURRAY STARKEL (US Army Corps of Engineers): And you know wind--the wind didn't move a 45-ton barge; it was a wave that launched that thing over the top of the levee and put it two, 300 yards inboard. It was just a massive, massive wave.

KESTENBAUM: There was a marsh on the other side of the levee. Starkel says the hurricane probably picked up water from nearby Lake Bruin and pushed a wall of it through the marsh and over the levee. Roy Dakka(ph) is a geologist at Louisiana State University. He says the levee may have been lower than it was intended to be; that's because there is a geologic fault underground, what he calls a slow earthquake. It's causing the ground to sink, subside relatively quickly. He's been studying the sinking and wrote a big report which the government released this year.

Professor ROY DAKKA (Louisiana State University): I don't think people recognized exactly kind of the dimensions of--the fact that it's been much greater than what people had previously thought.

KESTENBAUM: How much greater?

Prof. DAKKA: Anywhere from 200 percent to 5,000 percent.

KESTENBAUM: Dakka says by and large, the US Army Corps of Engineers did a good job of estimating which levees were sinking and making them taller. Some storm barriers are 10 feet tall, others closer to 20. Surveyors usually use brass markers in the ground to measure heights, but in Louisiana, the markers are sinking, too. Dakka and a colleague use the Global Positioning System to make appropriate adjustments.

Prof. DAKKA: The levees were pretty much what they should be; although in east New Orleans, they were much lower than probably what they thought. Mainly because of the fact that there's some active faulting in the region causing the land to go down at a much higher rate than anyplace else in Louisiana. In Plaquemines Parish, down at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the levees may have been as much as a foot, possibly two feet, lower than what they originally were.

KESTENBAUM: That shortfall could have been critical in a Category 3 hurricane, but Major Murray Starkel with the Army Corps says in the case of Katrina, an extra two feet wouldn't have helped; the wave still would have been many feet above the levee.

Maj. STARKEL: It's something that--it's almost impossible to describe but I can't imagine that if it was anything smaller than like a 20-foot wave of water, like a tsunami effect.

KESTENBAUM: Henry Rodriguez, the president of the St. Bernard Parish, agrees levee heights didn't matter much this time. Computer models have long predicted his parish would be quickly flooded, which makes him wonder why help didn't come sooner. Some of the first assistance he saw came from another country; 50 Canadian Mounties arrived on day two. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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