New Orleans Residents Eye Levee Protection

One obstacle that residents of New Orleans are encountering in returning home is the threat of future storms. Some are so concerned that the levees are rebuilt with care that they are proposing the citizens get in on the construction effort themselves.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Residents of the Gulf Coast are waiting to see how Washington answers one huge question. It's how to improve the levees around New Orleans. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, almost everything in that city depends on what the government does.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

On a recent visit to New Orleans, President Bush's point man for the recovery effort said the government is committed to building stronger levees. But he stopped short of promising protection from the biggest Category 5 storms. For local politicians, such as City Councilman Oliver Thomas, that's like no help at all.

Councilman OLIVER THOMAS (New Orleans): Every day our Congress and our government says, `No, we're not sure we're going to give you levee protection,' somebody commits suicide.

KASTE: Feelings run so strong, a prominent trial attorney named John Cummings came before the council last week and proposed the citizens take matters into their own hands.

Mr. JOHN CUMMINGS (Attorney): It's not rocket science. You simply take 40-foot pilings of sheet steel and start drawing a line, and I guarantee you we can get volunteers and we can start doing that tomorrow.

Unidentified Man: All right. All right.

KASTE: It's hard to tell whether council members are seriously entertaining the idea of a home-grown hurricane defense. But this kind of talk in the City Council chamber reflects the fear of future storms. Some flooded-out New Orleanians will tell you that they won't feel safe again until they see the city ringed by 40-foot walls. Al Naomi is the Army Corps of Engineers' project manager for hurricane protection. His office is already sketching out a possible new defense against the largest storms.

Mr. AL NAOMI (Army Corps of Engineers): At present, the way the levee system is constructed, you are taking a storm surge and fighting it in the heart of a major city. I think that has to change.

KASTE: The idea is to build the new giant seawalls 10 miles or so away from the city, out facing the Gulf of Mexico. So far, this is just a tentative concept for a report commissioned by Congress.

Mr. NAOMI: I don't see any reason why it couldn't be provided technically. The main impediment, I think, is going to be where do you find the money.

KASTE: A rough estimate of the cost of such a system is $10 billion minimum.

(Soundbite of fishing boat)

KASTE: Seventy-five miles southwest of the city is Houma, a fishing community on the bayou. Someday this area could become part of the outer ring of storm surge levees in Al Naomi's plan. Professor Denise Reed is an expert on the changing coastlines of the Mississippi Delta and she's relocated here now after Katrina closed down the University of New Orleans.

Professor DENISE REED: It's interesting to me that so many people are surprised that this happened.

KASTE: Many of the homes here on the bayou are built on 10-foot high stilts, something she says residents of New Orleans should keep in mind before they put too much faith in any new levees or seawalls.

Prof. REED: They should expect to be protected up to a certain level, but they shouldn't expect that whatever circumstances their homes and their property is going to be protected from flooding. That's just not the way in south Louisiana.

KASTE: Reed is quick to add that this doesn't mean New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt. On the contrary, she makes NPR promise to clarify that she believes in restoring the city. Reed's insistence on this point is symptomatic of just how sore a subject this has become recently, as outside analysts have come in and declared that New Orleans should not be completely rebuilt and that low-lying neighborhoods should revert to swamp or green space.

(Soundbite of hammering)

KASTE: John Cummings, the lawyer who proposed the homemade levees, has hired workers to remodel a friend's flood-damaged home. He hates the idea of turning black neighborhoods, such as this, into flood plains, but he's afraid that's exactly what will happen if the government delays the construction of stronger hurricane defenses.

Mr. CUMMINGS: If the big one comes, if a Category 3 comes in, or 4, before our levees are prepared, you won't see the brave hearts, you won't see the bravado that we have today that we're going to rebuild, because it will mean we can't rebuild.

KASTE: Whatever the motives, improved storm defenses are clearly not on a fast track. The Army Corps' full report on the feasibility of such a system isn't due to Congress until late 2007.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.

INSKEEP: Martin reports tomorrow on the future of local levee boards.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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