LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Weve been reporting from New Orleans all this week, to mark the fifth anniversary of the flood that was one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. As just about any New Orleans resident will tell you, the destruction was caused, not so much by Hurricane Katrina, as by the failure of the city's flood protection system. Over the course of several hours on August 29th, 2005, flood walls collapsed and pumps failed, allowing a 25-foot storm surge to wash over the city. Billions of dollars have been spent to prevent a calamity like this from happening again.

But, as NPRs Greg Allen reports, the new flood protection system still leaves New Orleans vulnerable to a major storm.

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GREG ALLEN: History was made here at this spot in New Orleans, where the 17th Street Canal flows into Lake Pontchartrain. Five years ago, this is one of the places where floodwaters surged into the canal, breaking through floodwalls and pouring into nearby neighborhoods. A historic plaque now commemorates those events and the flood that killed more than 1400 people and displaced more than a million others. But the 17th Street Canal has changed. A flood gate and temporary pumps are now in place. Permanent pumps will be installed soon.

Tim Doody, head of the areas Flood Control Authority, says it offers new protection to the neighborhoods that line the lake.

Mr. TIM DOODY (President, Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority): Theres temporary closure structure at the mouth of these canals, so no longer will the lakes water be able to infiltrate into the heart of the city.

ALLEN: This is just one part of a massive $14 billion upgrade of the citys flood protection system. When its complete next year, it will include new pump stations, floodgates on all major canals and waterways, safe houses for pump and floodgate operators and a massive surge barrier east of the city.

Public trust in government, especially the agencies overseeing the citys flood protection system, took a hit because of Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, the areas hodge-podge of levee control boards was reorganized into a single flood protection authority, run by engineers, geologists and others with technical backgrounds.

Doody says he believes the changes have helped rebuild the publics trust in government, and in the citys flood protection.

Mr. DOODY: What I really am hopeful of, is that once the system is complete, that anyone who is still feeling a little leery about living in the area but wants to return home, can feel comfortable that they can, in fact, come home.

ALLEN: Just around the corner from where the new pumps and floodgates were installed, is one of the areas where the floodwalls failed during Katrina. The new section is clearly visible; its a lighter shade of concrete.

Jimmy Krummel bought and renovated a house just across the street. He says hes not worried about the possibility of more flooding.

Mr. JIMMY KRUMMEL: Since they put new floodgates up, I have confidence in the wall. The wall that they repaired, that broke, that would never, if you seen them rebuild it, it would never break again. It might break on both sides. That would never break again.

ALLEN: A recent poll by Louisiana State University shows more than 60 percent of residents share Krummels confidence in the citys upgraded flood protection. Theres no question that the amount of work done in the past few years has been impressive. Throughout the area, old floodwalls shaped like the letter I, have been replaced by new, more stable floodwalls, shaped like the upside-down letter T. More than 350 miles of levees and floodwalls ringing the area have been raised, strengthened, and in some cases, armored with concrete.

Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Greg Gunter, one of those in charge of the upgrades, says, for New Orleans, its a whole new strategy of flood control.

Colonel GREG GUNTER (Army Corps of Engineers): You know, we took lessons learned form Katrina. Were building a true system and were building it in a true form that provides perimeter protection. I think a true lesson learned is, dont allow flood surge to come into, basically, peoples backyard. And thats what were preventing with this perimeter system.

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Colonel VIC ZILLMER (Ret. Army Corps of Engineers): This is the largest design build, civil works project ever attempted.

ALLEN: Vic Zillmer knows what hes talking about. Hes a retired colonel with the Army Corps of Engineers and worked on projects in the Balkans and Iraq. Hes now helping oversee construction of a nearly two-mile long surge barrier in what, during Katrina, was the scene of a catastrophe. Were about nine miles east of the lower Ninth Ward. This is where the old Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which is now shut down, meets the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

Zillmer recalls the dire scenario that led to the flooding of St. Bernard Parish and much of New Orleans.

Col. ZILLMER: Katrina came in and the levee around St. Bernard Parish and the levee around the New Orleans East acted like a funnel. And as the water came up through took all of the water out of Lake Borgne and pitched into the city. It was about 18 feet high at this point with a seven foot wave. It was about 25 feet where were standing.

ALLEN: Workers are busy on top of the surge barrier. Its 26 feet high and almost complete. Theyre using steel and concrete to build three barge gates. Theyre gates that will close before a storm hits, sealing the citys perimeter defenses. Once the surge barrier and the rest of the upgrades are complete next year, Corps officials say New Orleans will be protected against a 100-year storm event. But what about larger storms? Zillmer acknowledges that Katrina, if it had hit New Orleans directly, would have overwhelmed even this new surge barrier.

Col. ZILLMER: But even something that large, it would hit this and would stop most of it. And you have a containment pool on the backside to hold the rest that comes over. And the idea being is this thing was quote, built for a 100-year flood, but it's resilient to a 500-year flood. Which means a 500-year storm would hit this thing and do very little damage to it. Its designed to be overtopped.

ALLEN: A major hurricane, with rain, high winds and a massive storm surge, would still bring flooding to New Orleans. But Corps officials say the new upgrades should prevent the kind of catastrophe seen in Katrina.

Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is not quite as optimistic. Hes spent some 14,000 hours studying New Orleans flood protection since Katrina. He believes that, even with the new upgrades, the levees and floodwalls are more of a patchwork quilt than a true flood protection system. If and when the big one hits, Bea says, theres still likely to be significant breaching of levees and floodwalls.

Professor ROBERT BEA (University of California, Berkeley): And the reason for that is not the strong links that the Corps has built, but because of the weak links in the system that pre-existed Katrina.

ALLEN: Bea says a repeat of the Katrina destruction is unlikely. But, a major hurricane is likely to bring flooding, and possibly, loss of life. He believes that the 100-year flood protection plan for New Orleans is inadequate and many others here agree.

John Barry is a board member of the areas Flood Protection Authority and author of Rising Tide, about the 1927 Mississippi flood. He says the promise of protection against a 100-year storm can be misleading. Storms, he notes, dont pay attention to statistics.

Mr. JOHN BARRY (Author, "Rising Tide"): And over a period of 100 years, roughly your lifetime and your kids lifetime combined, theres a 63 percent chance that you will see a storm greater than the protection system. So, when you understand that, then you begin to understand why it is not a very good level of protection.

ALLEN: Even the Corps acknowledges that New Orleans needs more than 100-year protection. Its a hurricane-prone city where half the land is at or below sea level. But improving flood protection further is a question, not of engineering, but of policy and money. And thats a question not for the Corps, but for Congress.

Greg Allen, NPR news.

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