ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Before anyone decides how to rebuild New Orleans, they need to know that the next big hurricane won't destroy it again. The US Army Corps of Engineers built the levees that failed, and now the Corps is in charge of fixing them. Earlier this month the Bush administration promised that the Corps will repair the broken levees by June of next year; that would be in time to protect the city from a Category 3 hurricane during the next hurricane season. But some researchers say that the administration is misleading the nation. They say the Corps cannot possibly get the job done by next year. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling toured the levee system, and he has this report.
DANIEL ZWERDLING reporting:
We start the tour at one of the first spots along the levees that the Army Corps is trying to fix.
(Soundbite of machinery)
ZWERDLING: There are spoon shovels and cranes and men wearing hard hats.
Mr. WALTER MAESTRI (Runs Emergency Operations, Jefferson Parish): What you're seeing here, Daniel, is where the break actually took place along the 17th Street Canal.
ZWERDLING: My tour guide is Walter Maestri. He runs emergency operations in the city's biggest suburb, Jefferson Parish. It borders this canal. The break here caused some of the worst flooding in New Orleans.
Mr. MAESTRI: It's about a 500-yard break that took place here all along this canal.
ZWERDLING: The canal runs through an upscale neighborhood called Lakeview. Before Katrina, the canal was lined on both sides with high concrete walls, concrete levees. They protected a mix of ranch homes and big mansions. During the hurricane, these walls collapsed.
Mr. MAESTRI: The homes that were standing here, where we're standing now, are completely gone. They have been washed away. In addition, we're seeing homes off of their foundations. Literally it appears a wave of water came and spun them around almost completely.
ZWERDLING: The officials at the Army Corps of Engineers have been telling people, `We will fix these broken levees by the beginning of next hurricane season.'
Mr. MAESTRI: Yes.
ZWERDLING: Do you sleep peacefully at night with that promise?
Mr. MAESTRI: No. As far as real protection is concerned for the community, I just don't see it.
ZWERDLING: Maestri says you cannot trust what the Army Corps is telling you, partly for engineering reasons and partly because of the Corps' history. He says look at the facts. The Army Corps took decades to design and build this entire system of levees. This system failed in spectacular ways. So Maestri asks, `How can the Army Corps already say they know how to make it right?'
Mr. MAESTRI: You know, we really felt all along that the Corps was a group that we could absolutely trust. I mean, they wouldn't do sloppy work or allow sloppy work. They realized that this community basically lives and dies on the strength of those levees. Now what's happened--it's like finding out that your mother lied to you all the years of your life. And now, all of a sudden, you know, you can't trust your mother anymore.
ZWERDLING: A scientist named Paul Kemp says he doesn't trust the Corps' promises, either.
(Soundbite of engine starting)
ZWERDLING: On a recent morning, he takes me to another part of the levees, which most people never get to see. You have to go by boat.
(Soundbite of boat)
ZWERDLING: Kemp is part of the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University. He and his team did some of the first studies after Katrina that showed that levees broke even when the water wasn't high enough to go over them. We're heading up the shipping channel that connects New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. It's called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or Mr. Go. Kemp says he worries about what he sees here.
Mr. PAUL KEMP (Hurricane Center, Louisiana State University): The one reason we came to this levee, the Mr. Go levee, is because this is probably the biggest challenge the Corps of Engineers faces as far as repair work goes for readiness for next year's hurricane season.
ZWERDLING: Just to remind you, the city and towns near New Orleans have bodies of water all around them and running through them. The Army Corps has built 350 miles of levees all along their banks, and they say almost half of those levees got damaged in Katrina. Some are concrete, some are steel, but at the moment we're passing mile after mile of earthen levees. They look like an endless row of hills which some giant has squashed.
Mr. KEMP: When I look at this levee line here, you can see that it has--it's largely gone. Why don't we pull up there?
It may be a little bit muddy here, but...
ZWERDLING: Kemp says the day before Katrina, we could have climbed a ridge here 18 feet high. Now it's a flat plain of mud. And he says it should take five years to rebuild this levee right. Kemp says first you have to haul tons and tons of soil and sand and clay. You dump them, and then you wait a year for everything to settle and compact. Then you come back the next year and dump a second layer. Then you come back the third year and do it again. So when Kemp heard that an official at the White House promised to fix the levees by June 1st, he was puzzled.
Mr. KEMP: I think it has to do with what he means by fixed. Will we have structures that have grass on them that look like levees? Yeah, maybe. Will we have things that we can depend on for resisting wave forces and surges of 17 or 18 feet? No, we won't.
Mr. WALTER BALMY (Army Corps of Engineers): We will have hurricane protection in place by next year's season.
ZWERDLING: That's Walter Balmy. He's deputy chief of the Army Corps' project to rebuild the levees.
So would you expect that by next year 99 percent of the broken levees will be permanently fixed or 50 percent?
Mr. BALMY: I would think it'd be closer to the 99 than the 50.
ZWERDLING: But Balmy acknowledges there are still a lot of questions about the levees he can't answer. For instance, researchers have found evidence that when the Army Corps built the levees, it used underground supports that were much weaker than they should have been. So how many miles of levees were built that way and need to be rebuilt?
Mr. BALMY: That remains to be determined.
ZWERDLING: Ever since Katrina some of the best engineers in America have been studying why the levees failed and how to fix them. There are government research teams and groups at leading universities. They say it could take years to find all the answers. But their preliminary reports suggest that the Army Corps made critical mistakes when it designed and built the system. Yet Walter Balmy says nature destroyed New Orleans.
Mr. BALMY: This storm was not only large in mass, but it was also pushing a lot of water, storm surge, with it. It simply overwhelmed the system in most areas.
ZWERDLING: Do you feel that the Army Corps is responsible in any way for the flooding of New Orleans through bad design, through bad inspections, through faulty building of the levees? Do you feel that the Army Corps bears any responsibility for the disaster that hit this city?
Mr. BALMY: I'm not going to answer that at this point in time as far as responsibility. There's a lot of experts, or so-called experts, out there that are rendering opinions, and we're methodically proceeding through our own analysis.
ZWERDLING: Critics say those comments reflect one of the main reasons why they don't think the Army Corps can make the levees safe, not yet. Robert Bea is part of a team from the National Science Foundation that's studying the levees. Bea says officials who run the Corps need to take responsibility and say...
Mr. ROBERT BEA (National Science Foundation): `You know, we're really sorry for what happened. We wish that it didn't happen. And, yes, it did happen on our watch.'
ZWERDLING: Bea says he studied engineering disasters throughout history, and the evidence shows that organizations cannot correct their problems until their leaders acknowledge their mistakes. Bea says officials at the Army Corps need to tell the nation, `We will not be able to protect New Orleans soon.'
Mr. BEA: It can't be done that quickly, not if we're going to do it right. I think we're talking several decades.
ZWERDLING: That's not what political leaders are saying. Listen to Mayor Ray Nagin two weeks ago. He had just met with President Bush at the White House.
Mayor RAY NAGIN (Democrat, New Orleans): And I want to say to all New Orleanians, to all businesses it's time for you to come home. It's time for you to come back to the Big Easy.
ZWERDLING: This disconnect between researchers and government leaders is putting ordinary people in a terrible bind.
Unidentified Man: ...like I said...
ZWERDLING: One morning Timothy Thompson and his brother Frederick(ph) are carrying the wreckage out of Timothy's house and dumping it in the street. His house is in the neighborhood of Gentilly.
Mr. TIMOTHY THOMPSON: This is my first home, nice little home: four bedrooms, two bathrooms, beautiful--used to be real a beautiful neighborhood, quiet, no trouble. I would love to come back home.
ZWERDLING: As we're talking, a work crew comes down the street and scoops up his family's moldy belongings.
(Soundbite of items crashing together)
ZWERDLING: It's almost everything he and his wife and two daughters own.
(Soundbite of machinery)
ZWERDLING: Timothy turns his back. He says he's not going to dwell on the past; he's building his future. He says he trusts the Army Corps.
Mr. THOMPSON: Honestly, I do. I feel that with the proper leadership and the right plan and sufficient funding, I believe that the levees can be rebuilt to withstand a Category 4, 5 hurricane by next season.
ZWERDLING: I think your brother doesn't agree with you--because you're laughing.
FREDERICK: No, I'm laughing because what my brother said, it's hilarious to me because this--it is no longer fit to live, and we're not guaranteed that the system is going to fix the levee properly.
ZWERDLING: Here's a troubling question: What would Timothy do if his brother and the researchers are right and the Army Corps is wrong? What if government officials say it'll take years to fix the levees?
Mr. THOMPSON: Honestly, I'd be ready to pull up chalks. I'd be ready to leave and relocate my family.
ZWERDLING: Walter Maestri, the official from Jefferson Parish, says he hates to say this, but he would tell all the people whose homes were destroyed: Do not come home yet. Don't come back unless you can move to high ground.
Mr. MAESTRI: We're six months from the next hurricane season. There is no way known to man, with all of our technology, that we can deal with all of this. And I don't know that any of us in those positions can tell people that they should come back and experience this again.
ZWERDLING: But what you're also suggesting is that all the public officials who are saying, `We're rebuilding New Orleans. People, come on back'--that that's crazy right now.
Mr. MAESTRI: Looks that way. Looks that way to me.
ZWERDLING: After I left New Orleans, I talked to an engineer who used to work at the Army Corps. And he said history shows that the Corps could repair the levees and make New Orleans safe a lot faster than Maestri and other critics say. During World War II, the Corps ran the project that built the world's first atomic bomb in only two years. So he said the Corps can do the job quickly if the nation's leaders give them the resources to do it. So far President Bush says he wants to spend $3 billion fixing the levees. Researchers say it could cost five or 10 times that much. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.
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