MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The cost of defending New Orleans against another big hurricane could be as much as $32 billion. Federal, state and local officials are at odds over whether levees and flood walls will be rebuilt to withstand a Category 5 storm, but John Koerner has some ideas for flood prevention that he says could be done quickly and for tens of millions of dollars, not billions. Koerner is a New Orleans businessman who's in charge of infrastructure for the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
John Koerner recently took me to two places in New Orleans that he says are ripe for some instant flood control. Our first stop was a dismal turn off I-510 along the water in New Orleans East. The air close to the levee was thick with flies. A barge that crashed into the levee during Katrina is still wedged into it. And there, at the edge of the city, Mr. Koerner explained how $80 million could provide an outer defense.
Mr. JOHN KOERNER (Bring New Orleans Back Commission): We're here today at the 510 bypass on the eastern side of New Orleans, and we're underneath the bridge here, right next to what's known as MR-GO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet/Intracoastal Waterway. One of the reasons we've picked this site is there's a huge funnel effect over on this side of town. Facing towards the east is a 45-degree funnel made up by two levee systems, one that goes along the MR- GO and the other that goes alongside the Intracoastal Waterway.
When water gets blown by an east wind out of nearby Lake Boerne, it hits this funnel and then gets speeded up and focused at this point where we're standing now. It is an enraged sea that might be two or three times its normal height. This connects into the Industrial Canal System about five miles west of here, and it's like shoving a hypodermic needle down this canal and shoving water at high speed up through here. And then when it meets with that speed up inside it breaks away the flood walls because it's so forceful.
SIEGEL: You see, that force you're saying, that speed of that water, that's been created, really, by the manmade structures that have made this funnel.
Mr. KOERNER: That is correct.
SIEGEL: The funnel isn't geographic, it's what's been added to --
Mr. KOERNER: Right. Quite often, people think it's the bodies of water, the MR- GO and the Intracoastal Waterway, that drive the water in here, but in fact once that water is up above the marshland, it's a huge marching expanse of water that comes in and gets focused, all its energy on this point and then released.
SIEGEL: So what can you do out here?
Mr. KOERNER: One of the things we suggested to the Corps of Engineers and the powers that make these decisions is a weir structure placed right here. A weir is just like a dam, except there's a window or a gap in the top of it that allows waters or ships to flow through at a certain depth, and that when a storm approached, we would have a floating gate to match that exact hole, that you could float that gate in and then form a dam, which would not allow that water to keep traveling towards the west.
SIEGEL: So if we rethink what happened during Katrina, kind of run Katrina through our minds, had that weir been in place, what happens? The force of the water is dispersed, it goes in several different directions?
Mr. KOERNER: It would force it back. And, of course, this has to work, it helps to have what's called a leaky levee out about five miles from here on the, I guess it's seven, eight miles out here on the edge of Lake Boerne.
SIEGEL: So you're diverting part of that water onto wetlands.
Mr. KOERNER: Correct. It would bounce it back. It would spread it out a bit. It would keep it from coming up in here, because this is the water that hit the now famous lower Ninth Ward.
SIEGEL: Let's go to one of your points of greater inner defense that you have to fortify.
Mr. KOERNER: All right. Good deal.
SIEGEL: Okay. John, where are we now?
Mr. KOERNER: We're here at the northern end of what's known as the Industrial Canal.
SIEGEL: We're at the Lake Pontchartrain end of it here.
Mr. KOERNER: It opens up into Lake Pontchartrain, which is 24 miles across here.
SIEGEL: And this was a vulnerable point after Katrina.
Mr. KOERNER: We have an 18-foot high levee that runs all across the northern side of Orleans Parish. This Industrial Canal connects up to MR-GO. In the storm, as Lake Pontchartrain swelled up over the two or three days before the storm, the eastern wind shoved water in Lake Pontchartrain. Once the storm passed, the wind turned to north and blew all the water against Orleans Parish. And this is one of the big holes in our levees. So it blew all the water into this industrial canal, then out through New Orleans east. It blew it out through the Lower Ninth Ward, blew it into Gentilly and the Ninth Ward, all through this conduit. So we think it'd be a great idea to dam this thing shut.
SIEGEL: If it had been dammed up before Katrina hit, if the same thing had happened and you dissipated the funnel effect of it east of the city, what would've been different? What would've been prevented?
Mr. KOERNER: Well this part of town would not have been flooded from the lake water.
SIEGEL: How expensive a prospect would damming the industrial canal be?
Mr. KOERNER: Well, I think we could get it done for 20 million dollars. But whatever it is, it's more than affordable.
SIEGEL: Is it something that could be done before the next hurricane season?
Mr. KOERNER: I think it could be, but you do have a permitting process here. This is a navigable waterway, and it's authorized by Congress. So you'd need an act of Congress to open it, you'd need an act of Congress, literally, to close it.
SIEGEL: Given the two different directions, one, fortify the city and protect it against water, and also, retreat from some parts of the really vulnerable parts of the city, don't rebuild. Even though it costs a lot of money, it sounds a lot easier to say, let's fix the levy, let's dam the canal, let's put a leaky levy out there in the water, than let's not rebuild the lower Ninth Ward. Politically, one is a lot easier than the other to say.
Mr. KOERNER: Well, science and politics always are at odds, I think. Science is hard to understand and it's imperfect in many disciplines. But I think people should be allowed to make their own choices of where they want to live, when it comes to the reality of the economics, and the lack of services in some areas, people may decide that their neighborhoods maybe could be moved to another, more viable community. But if it's a community full of ruins, I'm not sure that I want to put my home out there.
SIEGEL: John Koerner, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KOENER: All right. Thank you Robert.
SIEGEL: John Koerner is a New Orleans businessman and he's in charge of infrastructure for the Bring Back New Orleans Commission.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.