Struggle to Protect New Orleans from Hurricane Floods Continues

Struggle to Protect New Orleans from Hurricane Floods Continues
June 22, 2009
By Supriya Sinhabab
Kansas City Infozine

Close to the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans, some senators fear that the hurricane protection systems now under construction may not protect the city from future catastrophes.

Washington, D.C. - infoZine - Scripps Howard Foundation Wire - Louisiana Sens. David Vitter, R, and Mary Landrieu, D, as well as witnesses from the state, expressed their frustrations with the current protection plan at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Tuesday chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

"We're in the process of perhaps moving forward with the wrong fix," Vitter said.

The plan now under way expels water from interior pumping stations on the city's three outfall canals to Lake Pontchartrain. Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said water levels would be monitored to make sure safe levels are not surpassed.

"The few times when the water level of the lake gets high enough, we'll be working with the Sewerage and Water Board. We'll close the gates, and as they continue to put water into the outlets, we'll pump that into Lake Pontchartrain," Walsh said.

Vitter and others expressed concern that this design, referred to as Option 1 in a February Corps report to Congress, relies on levee walls with same design as those that gave way during Katrina, causing extensive flood damage.

While the levee walls breached in 2005 have been rebuilt with an improved design, the remaining walls - which comprise 99 percent of the levee system, Vitter said - remain at pre-Katrina strength.

Landrieu likened maintaining existing levee designs to a car manufacturer telling her that a faulty brake system had caused an accident involving her loved ones, and then installing the same brake system in her car.

The February report outlines a second plan, Option 2 and 2a, which would widen or deepen the existing canals, eliminating the need for interior pumps as well as levees and floodwalls along the canals to Lake Pontchartrain. Water would be pumped just at the lakefront or in combination with pumping to the Mississippi River.

The report said that "Option 2 is generally more technically advantageous and may be more effective operationally over Option 1 because it would have greater reliability and further reduces risk of flooding."

But the Corps lacks the authorization to construct Option 2 and 2a, Walsh said.

"Since Options 2 and 2a address interior rainwater drainage issues and not storm surge protection, both exceed our current authority and would require additional authorization and funding for construction," Walsh said.

Vitter challenged Walsh's statement by referring to the appropriations bill's language, which says that "$704,000,000 shall be used to modify the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue, and London Avenue drainage canals and install pumps and closure structures at or near the lakefront."

"I believe this language covers Option 2 more clearly than it covers Option 1 because it says you can modify the drainage canal," Vitter said.

Landrieu echoed Vitter's argument, calling the Corps's stance "aggravating, frustrating and frightening" to her constituents.

The Corps's report estimates the cost of Option 2 at $3.4 billion. Option 1, the report said, fell within the $804 million already approved.

Landrieu noted that Katrina caused $40 billion worth of damage. She cautioned against installing a "pennywise but pound-foolish" protection system that would ultimately cost the government more money in damages.

Boxer said she was in favor of fast-tracking Option 2a as a stand-alone pump-to-the-river project that would build new pump stations at the ends of the canals but would not modify the canals or canal walls. The project is estimated to cost $205 million.

"We may have to go to our colleagues on the committee and say that this is an urgent need," Boxer said.
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