New Orleans Suffers More Flooding in Rita's Wake

Although the eye of Hurricane Rita struck to the west, storm surges caused new flooding in areas of New Orleans that were just recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Saturday morning, construction equipment was already being moved in convoys towards the levee failures. Robert Smith reports.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In New Orleans, water continued to pour into low-lying neighborhoods today. The storm surge from Hurricane Rita topped some levees and seeped through others, leaving recently dried-out sections of the city wet once again. NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

With water lapping at the windows of the houses in the Lower Ninth Ward or flowing through the streets of the Gentilly neighborhood, you could get a case of deja vu in New Orleans today, but the difference between the response to Katrina and to Rita is stark. This morning, construction equipment was already being moved in convoys toward the levee failures. Outside the Industrial Canal, construction engineers Rick Berry(ph) and Steve Treuting were discussing how to approach the breach.

Mr. RICK BERRY: What we're trying to figure out is if we can get to that breach over here and throw rock over there.

Mr. STEVE TREUTING (Pontchartrain Materials): By land or by the water?

Mr. BERRY: By land.

SMITH: Their firms helped repair the levees the first time, and they stressed that it wasn't their work that failed. The temporary levees were simply not high enough. Treuting is with the company Pontchartrain Materials.

Mr. TREUTING: It's not near the situation that Katrina was. It's manageable. And as soon as this water recedes, we should be able to fix everything, and hopefully we don't get any more storms we'll be OK.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

SMITH: National Guard helicopters fly low over the once-again flooded neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward looking for anyone who might have stayed behind. The water is from four to 12 feet in places, almost as high as the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, but this time, the neighborhood was already deserted. Lieutenant Colonel Reed Christopherson(ph) is with the National Guard.

Lieutenant Colonel REED CHRISTOPHERSON (National Guard): Today's focus again has been on getting in and predominantly reconnaissance. We have teams set up with high-clearance vehicles to come in, and again if there's location of people that have become stranded, to help remove them from the area.

SMITH: Christopherson says they've found no one in this neighborhood today. The additional property damage from yesterday's re-flooding was probably negligible. The area was already destroyed. The bigger impact is on morale. Officials here say the levee failure set back their recovery by three weeks or even a month. And there's the psychological blow to residents of seeing their neighborhood flood once again. Brendon Peak(ph) is a firefighter from St. Bernard Parish, right next to the Lower Ninth Ward. This morning, he was trying to get back home to see if he could be of use, but all roads back into the area are blocked. Last time, he was on the other side of this water.

Ms. BRENDON PEAK (Firefighter): At least this time I had access to a TV so I could see what was going on. Before just--you saw it when it was at your feet. So now I knew where the water was coming from and I knew how far it was going to go. I didn't think it was going to go this far. Apparently it did again.

SMITH: And like many residents of the re-flooded areas, Peak is asking why the temporary levee was built too low. The two other patched levees in the city of New Orleans were leaking water but otherwise held up.

Mr. PEAK: They fixed the 17th Street Canal, they fixed the London Canal and kind of threw some dirt and rocks on the top of this one in Industrial Canal. I don't know if--I'm not an engineer, so I don't know how they could have done it any better, but I'm sure they could have came up with a better plan than what they did.

SMITH: Up on the bridge over the Industrial Canal, you can look down on the Lower Ninth Ward. The levee breach is still shooting a waterfall into the neighborhood. I'm joined up on the span by Danny Simon(ph), a New Orleans firefighter, just off shift who wanted to look at the damage. His house is re-flooded also, but he jokes that more water could only make the place look better. Before Rita, there was a debate in the city over how quickly to rebuild these areas. Simon argues that they have to redesign the infrastructure first.

Mr. DANNY SIMON (Firefighter): The most important thing is fixing the levees, you know, getting those up to at least withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. The days of withstanding a Category 3 hurricane is over. They have to do a little bit better than that.

SMITH: Now that Hurricane Rita has passed, the city can begin pumping the water out of the streets again, clearing the debris again and continue the grim job of searching for bodies from the last storm. Mayor Ray Nagin says he'd like to begin the repopulation of parts of New Orleans as early as Monday. Robert Smith, NPR News, New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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