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After the hurricane, one of the major levee breaks came along New Orleans' 17th Street Canal. Surging water flooded thousands of homes. Now we're learning that months earlier, neighbors said water was leaking through that levee several hundred feet from where it later broke. Investigators say if there was a leak, it was a red flag that soil beneath the levee might be unstable, and that tip could have prevented catastrophe. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

The remains of Beth LeBlanc's red brick house sit some 30 feet in front of the levee that holds back the 17th Street Canal. Last fall, water mysteriously appeared in her front yard. The muddy puddle grew into a pond measuring 75 feet long and 10 feet wide. In places, the water was over her ankles. Standing amid mud and debris that used to be her front lawn, LeBlanc explains.

Ms. BETH LeBLANC (New Orleans Resident): It was a real Thanksgiving because all my family came and they had to park all up the street, and not up here. We had water on this side; we had water clear across here. I put ply boards down to--you know, so people could park and you wouldn't get all muddy.

LANGFITT: LeBlanc thought it might be a water main break, so she called the city's Sewerage and Water Board, repeatedly. Two months later, workers came out, dug around, but couldn't find a leak. LeBlanc says the board then sent out someone to test the water to see where it was coming from.

Ms. LeBLANC: They sent an environmental man out and he inserted a test tube down in the ground. I walked out and I asked him, I said, `Well, what did you find?' He said, `Well, you really want to know?' I said, `Yeah.' He said, `Looks like levee water to me.'

LANGFITT: Work orders show the sewerage board visited the property a number of times last February to see if a water main break was responsible for the pond. One document dated February 8th reads, quote, "Found running water in trench. Found no leak. Need environmental to find source of problem." The water spilled over into the yard of Peter Marcello, LeBlanc's next-door neighbor. He recalls LeBlanc telling him then that a sewerage board worker had tested the water and said it was coming from the canal.

Mr. PETER MARCELLO (New Orleans Resident): They said they couldn't find a leak, so they had another guy come back out and they said it wasn't from here; it was from the levee.

LANGFITT: NPR has repeatedly asked for records of any water tests on LeBlanc's property, but after nearly two weeks, the sewerage board hasn't provided documents or explained where the water was coming from. Ivor van Heerden is deputy director of the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University. He also leads a state team investigating the levees' collapse. He says that the neighbors' account could be a major clue as to why the levee broke.

Mr. IVOR VAN HEERDEN (Hurricane Center, LSU): This is very, very significant, because, you know, as we started to get into the study, we expected to find people in the area who were complaining of seeps, and you know, that's what we're seeing here. These poor folk had these seeps, and it was indicative that the water was already getting under the system and weakening the system.

LANGFITT: NPR also discussed the case with three civil engineers from separate teams investigating the collapse of the levees. All had similar concerns. Gordon Boutwell is a soil engineer with four decades of experience in Louisiana. He also works with an investigative team organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers. He says if there's a sign of a leak, the government needs to jump on it.

Mr. GORDON BOUTWELL (Soil Engineer): If you have seepage at the toe of the levee, you better investigate it; you better find out why. And if there's not a clear answer that it's safe, you better do something about it.

LANGFITT: The Army Corps of Engineers and the Orleans Levee District share responsibility for inspecting the levees. Both say they never received word of a leak. James Taylor is chief spokesman for the corps in New Orleans.

Mr. JAMES TAYLOR (Spokesman, Army Corps of Engineers): If we had received any information on that, we would have investigated that immediately. There's potential it could be a problem with the levee. There's potential it could be something else. We just don't know until we investigate. And we're interested in finding out what this water was. It's a concern to us if it--if there was some issue with the levee, or was it just ground water oozing up from underground? Those are things we want to know.

LANGFITT: The levees around New Orleans suffered dozens of breaks following Katrina. In some cases, water poured over the tops and undermined the foundations on the other side. In others, the water never rose that high but the levees collapsed anyway. Investigators think that's what happened at the 17th Street Canal. They blame faulty design and they share a theory that goes like this: The levee was built on top of very soft soil. The corps did not drive supporting metal sheets down deep enough to anchor it, something the corps disputes. When Katrina hit, the storm surge pushed through a soft layer of peat beneath the levee, and the water knocked the levee off its foundation. The result was catastrophic. Mile after mile of homes were flooded. Today, nearly all remain empty, caked in silt.

Recently van Heerden, the state investigative chief, walked around the levee and explained why it broke. He points to boulders of peat strewn about LeBlanc's yard. They used to form a layer of soil beneath the levee. As the Army Corps works in the background, van Heerden picks up a hunk.

Mr. VAN HEERDEN: It's very, very porous. It's very, very soft. When this stuff's wet, you can just take a stick and push it through. And so what it looks like what happened here at 17th Street is the water flowed through the peat layer, and then that way undermined the whole strength of the system, and it created a slippery plane, and then that whole levee system just took off and it slid about 45 feet.

LANGFITT: Millions of gallons of water poured through. Peter Marcello's home, a wooden shotgun house with a two-story addition, was one of the first to go.

Mr. MARCELLO: It had a porch with the two rocking chairs, and it was 2,200 square feet, and it was totally renovated. It was a beautiful house, and it's gone. It went down--it disintegrated and a piece of it went down the street.

LANGFITT: Investigators say if the government had found that soil under the levee was unstable, it could have done a number of things to prevent the collapse. Those include putting in wells to drain excess water from the soil or driving in longer sheet pile to cut off the flow of water from the canal. Either fix, investigators say, could have saved thousands of homes.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find a time line of events surrounding the failure of the 17th Street Canal. Just go to our Web site, npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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