Katrina & Beyond

Levees in Question as Hurricane Season Approaches

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New Orleans Diary

With hurricane season three months away, worries surface about whether the levees and floodwalls of New Orleans will be ready to hold back another storm. Col. Louis Setliff with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers talks to Robert Siegel about the responsibility of keeping the city safe from another flood.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. My colleague Michele Norris and I are in New Orleans this week focusing today on shelter. Six months after Katrina made landfall, where can people live? The question is not just about the four walls of a house, it's also about the walls that separate land from water in this city which is bordered by vast brackish lakes, and the Mississippi River, and sliced by manmade canals and waterways. Can the levees of New Orleans be rebuilt to protect the city from the storm next time? Well joining us is the man who's in charge of seeing to it that they can. Colonel Lewis Setliff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is commander of Task Force Guardian, which is, well it's the guardian of New Orleans. Welcome to the program.

Col. LEWIS SETLIFF (Army Corps of Engineers, Commander, Task Force Guardian): Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

SIEGEL: And we're out here at one of your projects. Tell us where we are along the industrial canal.

Col. SETLIFF: We're on the industrial canal, which is to the East of New Orleans, and it's one of the breached sites, where we had a floodwall breach and allowed water into the Ninth Ward.

SIEGEL: Qualitatively you intend this to be different from the wall that was here. The wall that the water pushed right into the adjoining neighborhood, the lower Ninth Ward?

Col. SETLIFF: That's correct. We intend for this to not only be better but to be stronger.

SIEGEL: It's going to be what they call a T-wall, and inverted T anchored by I-beams dug deep into the earth. Could it withstand the force of, say, a category five hurricane, if it hit New Orleans?

Col. SETLIFF: Well the, it will prevent any water that overflows from eroding the earth behind it, and causing catastrophic failure. A category five, though, is a very big storm. And the design parameters, I think, would be exceeded by a category five at this point.

SIEGEL: You mean the big storm that we were worried about some day hitting New Orleans, and indeed Katrina, calmed down to a three by the time it hit the earth, we're still not ready to deal with that even if you can finish all this?

Col. SETLIFF: Well what we're trying to do is minimize the risk. We're building a very stable platform that will withstand a lot of pressure and at the same time be able to withstand any water that overtops the structure itself.

SIEGEL: In three months, the 2006 hurricane season officially begins. Will this project be completely done by that time?

Col. SETLIFF: This project will be complete by the 1st of June, which is the start of the next hurricane season. Yes it will.

SIEGEL: When people in New Orleans say that the entire country, the federal government should cover the property loss from the flooding after Katrina. They say that because they say really it wasn't so much an act of God, as an act of government. That if the government had built better originally, planned better, maintained better, the wall that use to be where we're standing right now, would not have given way and been pushed all the way to the lower Ninth Ward. They right?

Col. SETLIFF: I don't know. I will tell you that we have spent a lot of time in the last, really last six months as you said, since the storm, trying to restore the levels of protection that the citizens of New Orleans deserve. And that's taken up my own time personally as well as about 200 dedicated engineers that are part of Task Force Guardian. I do think the elected officials in New Orleans need to represent their constituents. If anything was wrong, the Corp of Engineers is accountable and will be accountable for our work. And although, let's, we do have several independent investigations ongoing, right now it cannot impede our progress to restore this protection system.

SIEGEL: Colonel Setliff, the challenge to you it seems is that the whole of the old walls didn't collapse. They didn't all fall in. There were a couple of breaches. So it seems as if a system of levees is only as good as the weakest link of the system?

Col. SETLIFF: You're absolutely correct. It's the weakest link in the chain is where you have to focus your efforts. A concurrent effort of the Corp of Engineers is to do a very detailed assessment of the entire hurricane protection system.

SIEGEL: I want you to explain just to assure us that you're not, as generals have been accused of doing, fighting the last war. That is, you're repairing and rebuilding the places where the system failed under Katrina. What if they fail somewhere else?

Col. SETLIFF: Well we're very cognizant of the theory of fighting the last war. The Corp of Engineers is authorized by Congress to do certain things and we're told specifically what we can and can't do. In this particular case, we're told we can make repairs to the system. But we're going to do that smartly. We're going to make sure that these repairs provide better and stronger protection. And we're authorized and resourced to do that, and we're doing it.

SIEGEL: Well Colonel Setliff, thank you very much for talking with us.

Col. SETLIFF: You're very welcome, sir.

SIEGEL: That's Colonel Lewis Setliff who is commander of Task Force Guardian of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans. You can learn more about the challenge of rebuilding New Orleans levees at our website NPR.org.

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Q&A: Repairing New Orleans' Levees

Workers construct L-walls for a levee that was breached in New Orleans East

Workers construct L-walls for a levee that was breached in New Orleans East. Army Corps of Engineers hide caption

toggle caption Army Corps of Engineers
floodgate diagram

The Army Corps is adding floodgates to canals that can be closed in case of a storm to keep water from coming into the city's canals from Lake Pontchartrain. Temporary pumps would remove water from the canals when the gates are closed. Army Corps of Engineers hide caption

toggle caption Army Corps of Engineers

With the start of hurricane season about three months away, many people are asking whether repairs to New Orleans' flood-protection system will be ready in time. NPR Science Correspondent David Kestenbaum provides an update on efforts to restore the city's levees.

How far along are efforts to rebuild New Orleans' levees?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has pledged to rebuild the area's flood-protection system to the level that was in place prior to Katrina. The Corps says it will have the work completed by June 1, the beginning of hurricane season. A spokesman for the Corps says the project is now about 40-percent complete.

What changes are being made?

The major change is the construction of three new floodgates that can be closed in case of a storm and keep water from coming into the city's canals from Lake Pontchartrain. Normally, these canals are used to pump rainwater out of town and into the lake. But during Katrina, storm surge from the lake rushed into the canals and the canal walls failed, flooding downtown. The idea now is to close off the canals from the lake if the storm surge gets high.

The Corps is also building some tougher walls to replace the ones that gave way. The new stretches of canal wall will be a stronger "T-wall" or "L-wall" design, which have more support at the base. And the metal support for the wall (known as sheet pile) will be driven down to greater depths than before (in some cases, 40 feet below sea level) to increase strength and prevent water from seeping underneath. The Corps is not rebuilding all of the canals this way — only the sections that broke.

I've heard that levee repairs may not be finished in time for the start of the 2006 hurricane season. Is that true?

Some engineers outside the Corps are skeptical that the repairs can be done by the promised date, and worry about the quality of the work. For instance, Robert Bea and Ray Seed, who are both engineering professors at the University of California, Berkeley, say they saw poor, easily erodible materials being used to rebuild an earthen levee near St. Bernard Parish. Walter Baumy, deputy chief of the Army Corps' project to rebuild the levees, tells NPR that he knows of a couple isolated incidents where substandard materials were provided or used, but he says the problems have been fixed. Baumy says repairs are on track to be completed by June 1, but the flood protection will only be as good as it was before Katrina. If another Katrina-like storm comes, there could be massive flooding again in some areas of New Orleans.

What's the cost estimate for levee rebuilding?

The Corps has committed to some $495 million in contracts for repair work so far. The total cost is expected to be $770 million.




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