NPR logo On the Levee with the Army Corps of Engineers

On the Levee with the Army Corps of Engineers

Col. Lewis Setliff surveys New Orleans' 17th Street Canal in January. Cheryl Gerber hide caption

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Cheryl Gerber

Col. Lewis Setliff III is fixing a wall where the rain came in. Well, he is actually building a new wall, where the floodwaters overwhelmed the poor excuse for a floodwall that used to border the New Orleans' Industrial Canal. The force of the floodwater was too much (or as locals would vehemently insist, the wall was too weak and poorly maintained); it broke the levee and, like a tidal wave pushing the old floodwall ahead of it, the water inundated the Lower Ninth Ward.

He talked to me in the rain, mud underfoot, at the point where his unit of the Army Corps of Engineers' "Task Force Guardian" has advanced the new flood wall, an inverted "T" of reinforced concrete, anchored by 70 foot steel I-beams. It's 25 percent done, he says, adding that it will be finished on time by June 1. Col. Setliff is a soldier and a builder of large structures, two jobs that both require immense confidence and an outsized dedication to mission. We look across the line where the wall is going up, toward the still uninhabitable neighborhood it is intended to protect. Many of the houses were flattened, some were dislodged and floated to other lots, a few are still standing but to say they are severely damaged is an understatement.

"Would you rebuild," I ask, "if that were your house, knowing that your wall is what will stand between you and another flood?" The Colonel does not hesitate to answer that he would. The storm surge of Category 5 hurricane, he says, would still overtop this new levee now under construction and the Ninth Ward might flood for blocks, but it would be inches of water, not feet. His wall will hold and keep the rest of the water in the canal, where it belongs, he insists.

Col. Setliff is from St Louis. He's been living out of hotel rooms and finally has one with a microwave oven. He works 24/7 and has been home just twice since December. He is tirelessly dedicated to Task Force Guardian, although he knows that the Corps is more likely to be the subject of ridicule by Mardi Gras floats, than gratitude. People here speak of the disastrous flooding as a failure of construction and planning — not so much an act of God as an act of government. They mean the Congress, which give the Corps marching orders, the White House, and — to a great extent — the Corps of Engineers.

Col. Setliff knows it, and with military rectitude he just says it's important to get the story of what they're doing now out to the public. Almost incidentally he mentions his last posting. He was engineer to Army Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in Baghdad.