New Orleans Rushes to Repair Levees New Orleans' defenses against flooding performed with mixed results in the wake of Category-5 Hurricane Katrina. Now officials are setting about repairing the systems.
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New Orleans Rushes to Repair Levees

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New Orleans Rushes to Repair Levees

New Orleans Rushes to Repair Levees

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As we've reported, the levees in New Orleans have been breached. One broken stretch is estimated to be 300 feet long, and today water poured over it into the city. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

Some parts of the city are still dry, but water continues to find its way in. John Hall is a spokesman for the US Army Corps of Engineers, and he says the water level depends on the topology. Some places are minus 1, meaning one foot below sea level; others are lower.

Mr. JOHN HALL (Spokesman, US Army Corps of Engineers): I live in minus 6, which is fairly routine.

KESTENBAUM: What's it like at your house?

Mr. HALL: I'm afraid to look. If I had to guess and a lot of money was on the line, I'd say about six to eight feet of water in my house.

KESTENBAUM: In some places, the water is knee-deep; in others, 10 feet or more. Today, officials were trying to figure out how to repair the breach along the 17th Street Canal. This is a drainage canal. Standing on some parts of the street, you would have to look up to it. It carries water that gets pumped out of the city to the lake on the north side of town.

The levees were built by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Walter Baumy is chief of engineering for the New Orleans district. If you have sandbags and live in the area, give him a call.

Mr. WALTER BAUMY (Chief of Engineering, New Orleans District, US Army Corps of Engineers): We're looking for materials, and we've actually put out a notice on the public radio station for contractors that may have sources of materials and equipment that may be in the vicinity that we can mobilize and get to the site.

KESTENBAUM: The wall sits on top of an earthen berm that also holds the water back in the canal. He says what happened is that the water level rose too high, flowed over the wall, eroded the foundation, and the wall collapsed, leaving a gap about 300 feet long. The other broken section of wall is across town along the Industrial Canal.

In general, the strategy would be to let water flow out of the city by gravity where possible. If water ends up trapped in the city, they may have to break a levee to let it flow out. There's also a pumping system. If you walk around the city on a normal day, you would see the usual gratings in the street. John Hall says some of them lead to large concrete caverns built at a low spot in town.

Mr. HALL: One is 3,000 feet long along Napoleon Avenue, and it's--there are two of them, actually. You could put a city bus--two city buses side by side in each one.

KESTENBAUM: From there, pumps designed nearly a century ago will try to move the water out. Electricity has been a problem, but some of the pumps run on diesel.

When the city is dry again--and no one knows when that will be--there will likely be renewed discussion about how to reduce hurricane damage in the future. Robert Twilley is a coastal ecologist at Louisiana State University. He'd like to restore some wetlands between the city and the Gulf of Mexico, which he says would act as a much-needed sponge during smaller storms.

Mr. ROBERT TWILLEY (Louisiana State University): You know, you can actually look at a map. You don't have to--just go back to a 1950s map and see it. Look at a road map on 30 years, 40 years ago and look at one today, and the land is gone. It is now open water.

KESTENBAUM: Think we're ever going to have to give up on New Orleans?

Mr. TWILLEY: Well, I don't--I think that's not a decision we'll make in our lifetime. I don't think it's even conceivable.

KESTENBAUM: Twilley says the solution is probably to do what cities like Venice and Amsterdam are trying to: Re-engineer nature once again. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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