NEW ORLEANS — Through the morning of Hurricane Gustav and into afternoon rainstorms, city and state officials watched nervously — but optimistically — as waters lapped against the area's hurricane protection system. Even when all appeared well, nobody was quite willing to declare the all-clear.
But by late afternoon, all evidence indicated that the area's levee system had held. The combination of recent improvements and a storm that was less than feared seemed to promise there'd be no repeat of the floods and chaos brought by Hurricane Katrina.
By late afternoon, officials from New Orleans and neighboring suburban parishes were still watching for any increased storm surge, as well as any rain that could come in Gustav's aftermath.
Katrina, which hit almost exactly three yeas ago, 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 shielded by levees that failed.
Since New Orleans is partially below sea level and is shaped like a bowl, it relies on levees and floodwalls to keep out a hurricane's waters. During Katrina, some levees cracked wide open, bringing floodwaters to the second stories of houses in many parts of the city.
As Gustav approached, officials had some major fears.
Among the most pressing was the unfinished floodwalls along the Harvey Canal south of the city. The levees and floodwalls are being raised — but the job is unfinished and gaps have been filled in with earth and sand.
Monday morning, the evidence of the hurricane was all around: Power lines were down — including a long string of 10 utility poles that came down together — and signs and debris littered the area. Outhouses had been blown over. The canal water level, though, was well below the top of the levees and floodwalls.
The biggest worry Monday was for an industrial navigation canal in the eastern part of New Orleans.
The canal is right next to the Ninth Ward, a section of town ravished by Katrina. Water in the canal had far exceeded its banks and was right at the top of the floodwalls that separated an industrial area from residential neighborhoods.
All morning, waves of water crashed over the walls, spilling onto local streets, making some lanes impassable. The high water levels had swamped the industrial waterfront area; water was up to street signs, and warehouses were deep in water.
Even so, the water was contained within the floodwalls.
Nearby, at another bridge over the canal, water constantly squirted through a steel gate and splashed over the floodwall. But the nearby neighborhoods were not affected.
Along Lake Pontchartrain to the north, new canal gates were in place to prevent a storm surge from entering the city, as happened with Katrina. But the water levels never got high enough to threaten the city.
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. The Corps of Engineers has repaired some levees, made others higher, and put gates on certain canals.
The $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. The project now is only 20 percent complete.