WASHINGTON — The levees that ring New Orleans have been substantially fortified since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the Crescent City is still far from protected if Gustav or another large storm were to hit before 2011.
Since Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been fast at work reinforcing and repairing the 325 miles of levees and floodwalls that protect New Orleans and neighboring parishes from the storm surges and flooding that accompany hurricanes.
A $15 billion upgrade to the hurricane protection system designed to protect the New Orleans area from a so-called 1-in-100 storm — a storm and associated surge that has a 1 percent chance of hitting in any given year — is scheduled for completion in 2011. As of June, the corps said that it had completed 48 construction contracts and had 47 in progress — some minor, some major.
"The New Orleans area now has the best flood protection in its history," the corps said in a statement.
But the project is only 20 percent complete, and there are significant gaps that make New Orleans residents nervous as they contemplate Gustav's possible arrival.
New Orleans is a city partially below sea level and is shaped like a bowl, its levees serving as the rim. Some neighboring suburbs are within the levee system, while others lie outside it.
Katrina devastated the area not because of wind but because of manmade failures in design and construction. Some parts of the metro area weren't protected by storm surge gates; others were protected by levees that failed, filling the bowl with water.
Since 2005, the Corps of Engineers has repaired some levees, made others higher, and put gates on certain canals, enabling the city to block a storm surge. Some neighborhoods devastated by floodwaters are now protected by these gates.
"That's a substantial difference," said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who has studied the levees.
But, he added, equivalent gates have not been installed on major navigation waterways in the eastern part of the city. Until those gates are in place, a strong storm surge could barrel down the waterways and inundate the city and neighboring suburbs such as St. Bernard Parish — the same thing that happened in 2005.
While waiting until 2011 for full protection is frustrating, Campanella said, "This is an engineering challenge. It needs to be done right."
Campanella also said a huge project needs to be undertaken to restore the coastal areas in southern Louisiana, which could help prevent a storm surge from even reaching New Orleans.
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