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Majority of New Orleans deaths tied to floodwalls' collapse

NEW ORLEANS—Nearly 600 people who died because of Hurricane Katrina might have survived had floodwalls on two New Orleans canals not collapsed, a Knight Ridder analysis of where bodies were found after the storm indicates.

The bodies of at least 588 people were recovered in neighborhoods that engineers say would have remained largely dry had the walls of the 17th Street and London Avenue canals not given way—probably because of poor design, shoddy construction or improper maintenance—after the height of the storm.

In contrast, 286 bodies were recovered in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East and neighboring St. Bernard Parish, where Katrina's storm surge poured over levees and flooded neighborhoods.

The role of the 17th Street and London Avenue canal floodwalls in the destruction of New Orleans has been hotly debated in the four months since the storm. Engineers who are investigating their collapse think that floodwaters generated by Katrina never rose high enough to pour over the walls, and they blame flawed design, construction or maintenance for the walls' failure and the flooding that followed.

Louisiana authorities are investigating whether laws were broken during construction of the floodwalls, but until now there's been no attempt to quantify how much their failure may have contributed to New Orleans' death toll.

Louisiana State University hurricane expert Ivor Van Heerden said there was no doubt that vast areas of the city would have remained dry, and residents relatively unscathed, had the walls of the 17th Street and London Avenue canals not collapsed.

"A big yes," Van Heerden replied to an e-mail question asking whether the majority of the city would have stayed largely dry had those floodwalls held.

Peter Nicholson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Hawaii, said some flooding in central New Orleans came from breaches on the west side of the Industrial Canal, but that those breaches were above sea level and the flooding stopped as Katrina's surge died down Aug. 29.

"The big difference is with 17th Street and London the breaches opened gaps that were below sea level and continued to drain Lake Pontchartrain until they were closed," Nicholson said.

This confounded rescue efforts and left thousands stranded in darkened hospitals, attics, on freeway overpasses or in the foul refuges of the Superdome and the convention center.

Dr. Frank Minyard, the Orleans Parish coroner, has estimated that 20 percent of Katrina's victims drowned. Scores more died awaiting rescue, trapped by floodwaters. The causes of death for many will never be known because their bodies were too badly decomposed by the time they were recovered.

Said Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, "Had we not lost the integrity at 17th Street and the integrity on London, we would have had water in there and maybe some soggy carpets, but certainly not the water level that ultimately led to the catastrophe. That is directly attributable to those two sets of failures."

Bea is a member of a team of engineers who studied the levee system under the auspices of the National Science Foundation.

Months after Katrina's landfall, experts still are debating how the tragedy might have been avoided. Local officials ordered an evacuation of New Orleans, but perhaps not soon enough. Tens of thousands of residents ignored the evacuation order. Federal help came slowly.

Debate also continues over what part Louisiana's fractured system for governing the levees played in the flooding. In addition to the two canals whose floodwalls collapsed, engineers reported poor maintenance and construction practices at scores of places throughout the vast levee system.

Louisiana officials still are tabulating the death toll, which stands at nearly 1,100 statewide. Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state medical examiner, said a precise total might never be known.

"We feel we may have lost people to the river," he said. "We feel we may have lost people into the marshes. We feel we may have lost people into the Gulf" of Mexico.

Of the bodies that have been recovered, only 565 have been released to families for burial. Of those, 422, or about 75 percent, were from New Orleans, and 104, or about 18 percent, from St. Bernard Parish.

Officials have given the identities only of victims whose bodies have been released.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, in response to a request from Knight Ridder, earlier this month released a list of nearly 600 locations where at least 874 bodies had been recovered in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, the two areas in Louisiana that Katrina hit the hardest.

Louisiana health officials say the list is incomplete, and a review of the data showed some inaccuracies.

But the addresses provided the first comprehensive view of where Katrina's New Orleans victims were found and allowed a systematic look at the dead for the first time.

The addresses showed that far more dead were recovered in western and central New Orleans than in the city's eastern neighborhoods, even though the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish received the storm's harshest battering.

They showed that far more deaths were reported at hospitals and nursing homes in western areas of the city—171, or 79 percent—than in the eastern portions—45, or 21 percent.

The number of dead recovered outside health institutions, primarily from private homes, also was higher in west and central New Orleans than in the east; 354, or 59.5 percent, were retrieved in the west, compared with 241, or 40.5 percent, in the east.

Another 63 bodies were recovered at two mass collection points in west and central New Orleans, where people had deposited them for retrieval by authorities.

Van Heerden, the LSU hurricane expert, said the flooding in the eastern areas began when an 18-foot storm surge from Lake Borgne destroyed much of the earthen levee system that had protected St. Bernard Parish shortly before the storm made landfall at 6:10 a.m. Most of the parish's 123 victims drowned in their homes, said Dr. Bryan Bertucci, the parish coroner.

"The water came so fast I didn't have time to grab anything," recalled Kathy Dering, 59. She said her boyfriend, Todd Lopez, helped her and his mother, Lucille Lopez, into the attic before going into the swirling water to help a friend find his Rottweiler.

Lopez and his friend weren't seen alive again.

By 6:30 a.m., water as high as 17 feet surged into a convergence of two channels east of New Orleans, engineers believe. It overwhelmed the levees, added to the flooding in St. Bernard Parish and began to flood the Lower Ninth Ward.

Just before 7 a.m., water poured over the top of the Industrial Canal, separating the Lower Ninth and New Orleans East from the rest of the city. The water eroded the back side of the levee, scouring out trenches that undermined the walls.

About 7:45 a.m., walls protecting the Lower Ninth were "explosively breached," and a head of water almost 20 feet high mowed down houses in its path, Van Heerden said.

"Girl! Zelda, you should see all the water. ... Girl, hold on!" Ersell Smooth shouted into the phone as she scrambled up into the crawl space in the little gray house at 1734 Flood St. in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Smooth, 33, had chosen to ride out the storm with her three young nieces near the canal. Ten blocks away, Zelda Simmons still couldn't see the water when Smooth abruptly ended the call: "I gotta get off the phone. We gotta pray!" Weeks later, a recovery crew found four bodies at the house.

The waters also overwhelmed the home of bus driver Edward Sparks, 54, who died, along with his wife, Susie, 47, their 13-year-old son, Edward Jr., and an aunt, Marjorie Edwards, 84. Weeks later, Edward Sparks' green Monte Carlo still was parked by the house, coated in a white film whose bands showed the slow draining of the city.

But Van Heerden's re-creation of the storm's flooding indicates that as the storm's eye moved north to the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, the surge that had buried St. Bernard Parish leveled off.

Most of central and western New Orleans remained dry—until the 17th Street and London Avenue canals' floodwalls collapsed.

Van Heerden, the deputy director of LSU's Hurricane Center, places the collapse of the 17th Street Canal wall at about 10:30 a.m., though others have reported it hours earlier. The breach would expand to 455 feet. The water overran the upscale Lakeview neighborhood and gradually filled the city.

At the London Avenue Canal, the 11-inch-thick concrete floodwalls bowed and then breached on both sides, at about 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. The two breaches measured 425 and 720 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

In central New Orleans, the water rose at different times, speeds and heights, depending on the neighborhood and often the street. Water didn't reach some areas until the next day. It leveled off two days after the storm.

New Orleans police Sgt. Forrest Austin's mother, Winona Austin, 82, might have lived through the storm if water from the London Avenue Canal hadn't inundated her home in the Gentilly neighborhood.

"I got a guilty feeling because I didn't grab her by the arm and drag her out," he said. His mother's body wasn't recovered until three weeks after Katrina.

Arthur Batieste Jr., 78, a retired truck mechanic, rode out the storm with others at Second Mount Bethel Baptist Church. Then he went back to his home on Toledano Street, west of the Superdome. Water from the 17th Street Canal reached there early the day after the storm, rising eventually to 9 feet. Batieste's body was found two weeks later outside his house.

"I talked to him (that) Monday from the church on his cell phone a few times. He didn't tell me he was going back," said his daughter, Sharrell Irvin. "I guess people thought it was OK."

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(Simerman of the Contra Costa Times and Ott of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported from New Orleans; Mellnik of The Charlotte Observer reported from Charlotte, N.C.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-DEATHS

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051229 STORMS DEATHS

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