New Orleans' Rebuilt Levees Pass Gustav's Test

As New Orleans residents begin to return to the city, they'll find uprooted trees and some ongoing power outages, but not the more devastating damage that was feared. That's thanks, in part, to the rebuilt levees that protected the city. Work to make them stronger continues.

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Though others will have to wait, some business owners will start returning to New Orleans today. They'll find trees in the road and power out in some neighborhoods. Otherwise, the city is much the way they left it. Of course, if Hurricane Gustav had been much stronger, this would've been a very different scene.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: The Mississippi River looks totally peaceful and serene today. There are little waves lapping at the riverbank, and it's strange to think that this same water could have surged over the concrete walls behind me and submerged the city of New Orleans if Hurricane Gustav had been just a little bit stronger than it was.

(Soundbite of beeping, banging)

SHAPIRO: Stewart Buckley(ph) is part of a team of workers. They're swinging giant metal doors back against the concrete wall that protects the French Quarter from the river.

Mr. STEWART BUCKLEY: That and basically the whole city. These things run all around New Orleans, these floodgates.

SHAPIRO: You know, Gustav was less severe than people were afraid that it might have been. What would've happened if it were a stronger storm?

Mr. BUCKLEY: It would've flattened out New Orleans and this whole southeastern area here.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel safe?

Mr. BUCKLEY: To a small degree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Stewart Buckley's been at this job for 17 years. His colleague Brett Sanders(ph) has been opening and closing floodgates for 25 years. That's 25 years of waiting for the government to protect his city.

Mr. STEWART BUCKLEY: We do what we got to do, and they claim they constantly going to be rebuilding and doing this and making the walls higher and stuff. So, we contemplating and waiting on them. See what they going to do. See if it going to happen.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel a sense of urgency?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Oh, yeah. I be wanting to run, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCKLEY: But this is my job, you know. So I've got to stay and participate, help get these gates locked down and everything. And we just sit and wait, see what the outcome is going to be.

SHAPIRO: Yesterday morning, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said he's grateful for the country's help strengthening levees after Hurricane Katrina three years ago. He said the work needs to continue.

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): This work will not be done before 2011. Even that is only 100-year flood protection. That'll be good, but we're very much eager towards working towards Category 5 protection and comprehensive wetlands restoration.

Mr. H.J. BOSWORTH (Civil Engineer, Research Director, Levees.org): What I wonder is if the plans that are currently in the making will really ever be implemented.

SHAPIRO: That's H.J. Bosworth, Jr. He's a civil engineer and research director for the advocacy group Levees.org. They've been pushing the federal government to improve the levees and restore wetlands that can help prevent flooding.

Mr. BOSWORTH: All you have to do is go to Google Earth and Google southeast Louisiana and take a look at how those marshes are carved up. It looks like the draining tray for something that you would carve up at Thanksgiving, with all the channels and whatnot that all seem to go to the Gulf of Mexico. All of these are manmade and all of these cause coastal erosion. All of these cause wetland loss, and I just don't see Congress and I don't see the American people as being dedicated to doing the right thing.

SHAPIRO: As a result, he says, sooner or later, parts of New Orleans will drown again.

(Soundbite of cars moving)

SHAPIRO: Back in the French Quarter, Brenda Horn(ph) and Richard Shipe(ph) went out for a walk yesterday morning.

Ms. BRENDA HORN: It, you know, really wears you down, being here. And the people that lost their homes in Katrina, you know, it must be very tough to think of all the work they put in that to go through all the worry that comes with evacuating and just going through it over and over.

SHAPIRO: Why live here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HORN: I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Well, why do you live here?

Mr. RICHARD SHIPE: It gets in your blood.

Ms. HORN: We like it.

Mr. SHIPE: It gets in your blood.

SHAPIRO: Does living here just mean accepting that, at some point, everything you know and love could be washed away?

Ms. HORN: Yeah, I guess it does.

SHAPIRO: Anything else you'd like to mention?

Mr. SHIPE: No. Welcome to New Orleans.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, New Orleans.

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