Bush Seeks to Double Funds for Levee Repairs

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President Bush announces he will seek to an additional $1.5 billion — nearly double the amount originally allocated — to repair broken levees around New Orleans. It's hoped repairs to the levee system can be completed before the next hurricane season. But researchers aren't sure that's possible.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush will ask Congress to double the money it had pledged to rebuild and strengthen the levees around New Orleans. That announcement was made today at the White House. The administration says the new plan will guarantee that the levees will be repaired in time for next year's hurricane season. But as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports, researchers who've been studying the levees say there's no way the Army Corps of Engineers can pull it off.

DANIEL ZWERDLING reporting:

The officials at the podium today were some of the key people who have the power to decide whether the nation will rebuild New Orleans, and they said exactly the kinds of things that residents of New Orleans want to hear. The secretary of Homeland Security was there, Michael Chertoff.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): We understand that the people of New Orleans need to be assured that they're going to be safe when they get back home, that their city has an infrastructure that is capable of sustaining a possible storm next season or in the seasons afterward.

ZWERDLING: And the president's liaison who's in charge of coordinating all this described the new plan. Donald Powell noted that the president has already said that the government will spend $1.6 billion to fix the levees that were destroyed and damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. DONALD POWELL (Presidential Liaison): ...with a target date of completion by June 1st of next year.

ZWERDLING: Powell said as of today, the president will ask Congress to double that money so they can make sure that all the levees are stronger than ever. He said they'll accomplish that within two years.

Mr. POWELL: The levee system will be better and stronger than it ever has been in the history of New Orleans--better and stronger than it ever had been in the history of New Orleans.

ZWERDLING: But there's a problem. Respected researchers outside the government say there's no way that the government can do what they're promising.

(Soundbite of motorboat operation)

ZWERDLING: A scientist named Paul Kemp says you'll understand why if you tour the levees by boat.

(Soundbite of motorboat operation)

ZWERDLING: Kemp works with the Louisiana State University's Hurricane Research Center. On a recent morning, he takes me way up the long canal called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. It's nicknamed Mr. Go. The canal's banks are lined the whole way with levees--or at least they're lined with the remains of levees. There are tall, dirt ridges which have crumbled. There are massive concrete walls, which are riddled now with giant holes.

Mr. PAUL KEMP (Louisiana State University): So about 60 percent of this levee is severely damaged and it's about--this reaches about 10 miles long, so it's a huge job to put it back.

ZWERDLING: He says to build the levees so they're strong, you have to build them slowly, in layers. The first year you haul in tons and tons and tons of dirt and other material; then you wait a year while it settles and compacts. The next year you haul in a second layer and you have to do that over and over again.

Mr. KEMP: What concerns me is that in order to build a levee that really can work out here, it will probably take--under the best circumstances, probably take five years to do that because...

ZWERDLING: Five years?

Mr. KEMP: It cannot be done in one year.

ZWERDLING: And some researchers say that's optimistic. Robert Bea is a civil engineer at the University of California. He's been studying the New Orleans levees with a team from the National Science Foundation. He studied the legendary levees in Holland. Almost 170 miles of levees around New Orleans were damaged during Katrina. That's according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Bea says he doesn't know anybody in the scientific community who thinks that the Corps can repair them anywhere near as fast as administration officials are promising residents of New Orleans.

Mr. ROBERT BEA (University of California): So I think the honest answer back to those people is, `We're really sorry. It can't be done that quickly, not if we're going to do it right. We should be looking and thinking about several decades.'

ZWERDLING: A spokesman at the Army Corps of Engineers told me he's heard all the critics. But he said the Army Corps has can-do spirit, and they will make New Orleans safe by next year. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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