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Water surges over some New Orleans levees, floods neighborhoods

NEW ORLEANS—Flood-ravaged sections of New Orleans were inundated again Friday as rising water driven by approaching Hurricane Rita sent Lake Pontchartrain pouring over a damaged levee.

Neighborhoods that had been drained of polluted floodwater only days before were submerged again by early afternoon. Several feet of water covered much of the Ninth Ward and spread through the Arabi and Chalmette neighborhoods. In some low-lying areas, the water was as high as 8 feet.

As Rita drew closer, emergency personnel reaffirmed their faith in the bulk of the levee system, saying they thought it would hold fast.

The major culprit was a weakened portion of the Industrial Canal levee that had been bashed by a barge during Hurricane Katrina weeks earlier. Water began seeping over the top of the reconstructed portion Thursday night, and by Friday morning the leak became a torrent.

Emergency repairs to the levee had left it several feet shorter than its original height. Corps officials said Friday that they'd had limited time to make the repairs and had thought the barrier was high enough to handle the forecasted storm surge. But winds from the outer bands of Rita were stronger than expected.

"Looking back, we wish we'd put a foot or two more" on the overtopped sections, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Dan Hitchings said.

"The bottom line for New Orleans is that they are back to square one: pump, pump, pump and start over again," said Ivor van Heerden, the deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center.

He said no one from the Army Corps of Engineers had asked the center to do storm-surge modeling that might have predicted that the repaired levees wouldn't hold.

The problems at the canal had one state senator fuming, calling the Corps' work on the levee "criminal" and "half-assed."

Walter Boasso, a Republican who serves nearby St. Bernard Parish, said the Corps "once again" ignored his district by inadequately fortifying the levee. The flooding has ruined any chances at salvaging a number of buildings, he said, and put his own residence in 6 feet of water.

The Corps "knew the storm was coming," he said. "They had plenty of time."

In several areas of the city, the scene Friday was eerily reminiscent of Katrina. By early afternoon, a road leading into St. Bernard Parish resembled a seashore. Water from a nearby lake crept up Paris Road in Chalmette, slowly overtaking businesses that had dried out less than two weeks ago.

About 6 feet of water covered a low-lying portion of Interstate 10, one of several major thoroughfares that had become impassable.

There were stark differences from Katrina as well. This time, the flooded neighborhoods were all but deserted.

"There is no area that is getting wet that has not been wet before," said Larry Banks of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The reflooding of the Lower Ninth Ward was an added blow to those who call it home.

"You have to take it like it comes," said Quentrell Jordan, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward who watched footage of his neighborhood flooding for the second time on a TV in a shelter in Lafayette. "There's nothing we can do about it."

Water coursed from the Industrial Canal in at least three places, pouring over the levees and eroding the newly built walls. Water was waist-deep in the Lower Ninth Ward by early afternoon, and was spreading to adjacent parts of the city and next-door St. Bernard Parish.

Army Corps officials called the problem an "overtopping," but it looked like white-water rapids Friday afternoon.

Hitchings said Rita's winds pushed water "far above what was anticipated" by the corps. Two pumps were expected to begin trying to drain the area late Friday.

The corps had to balance a variety of needs when working on the levee repairs, officials said. The breaches were left open for a short period to allow trapped floodwater to pour out of the city, which delayed work on repairs.

While canals around two other breaches were closed as Rita approached, that wasn't considered a viable option for the Industrial Canal, which is used for shipping.

Ultimately, corps officials said, there simply wasn't time to secure the levee adequately.

As emergency officials monitored the levees, wind whipped across debris-covered streets and lawns, turning sheets of aluminum and tree limbs into dangerous projectiles.

Buses of New Orleans police officers left the Crystal Palace Reception Center, Seventh District headquarters, for higher ground because Katrina had flooded the official building weeks earlier. They left behind a skeleton crew of 20 officers, a lieutenant there said.

"There might be a straggler here and there, but pretty much everyone is gone," he said.

A few folks stayed behind.

Once again the denizens of Johnny White's Sports Bar in the French Quarter raised their glasses in defiance of a hurricane.

Johnny White's, established in 1989, is among several bars in New Orleans that remain open 24 hours in normal times. But these days, its claim to fame is that it remained open when the other all-night bars closed in the face of Katrina and Rita.

Steve Bartley, a local bartender, said he'd been sleeping at his bar since Katrina struck to protect it from looters.

"Where would I go? Where would I evacuate to?" said Bartley, who's 54. "Five different times they've tried to evacuate me. Every time I came back here. Sometimes, man, home is just where you find it."

Patricia Patterson, 63, stood at the 17th Street Canal, holding a suitcase and two shopping bags filled with clothes. As of Friday afternoon, the canal was holding, but Patterson had lost hope.

"I lost everything in Hurricane Katrina," she said. "I don't know where to go. I live out of my car. It doesn't matter to me what happens now."

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(Ott reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Spangler for The Miami Herald and Estwick for the Akron Beacon Journal. Malcolm Garcia of The Kansas City Star, Aaron C. Davis of the San Jose Mercury News and Susannah Nesmith of The Miami Herald contributed to this report from New Orleans. David Sneed of The (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) Tribune and Alex Friedrich of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed from Baton Rouge, La. Katherine Corcoran of the Mercury News contributed from Lafayette, La., and Pete Carey of the Mercury News contributed from San Jose, Calif.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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