- President Bush pledges $3.1 billion for fortified hurricane protection.
- New pumping stations aimed at keeping storm surge from pouring into New Orleans through drainage canals, vulnerable levees reinforced to resist erosion from waves and fast-track completion of a long-promised hurricane protection system are the cornerstones of an additional $1.5 billion request
- repairs to a variety of breaches in canal levee walls and eroded earthen levees in New Orleans and Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.
President Bush pledges $3.1 billion for fortified hurricane protection.
Nagin, Blanco urged displaced residents to return home.New pumping stations aimed at keeping storm surge from pouring into New Orleans through drainage canals, vulnerable levees reinforced to resist erosion from waves and fast-track completion of a long-promised hurricane protection system are the cornerstones of an additional $1.5 billion request
announced Thursday by the Bush administration.
"The levee system will be better and stronger than it ever has been in the history of New Orleans," said Donald Powell, the top federal official for Hurricane Katrina reconstruction. "Better and stronger than it ever has been in the history of New Orleans," Powell repeated, as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin stood at his side at the White House.
"If a hurricane such as Katrina ever visited New Orleans again, I'm convinced that the work that the corps would be doing as I've described will prevent any catastrophic flooding," Powell said.
He said the Army Corps of Engineers would correct any design flaws that may have contributed to the catastrophic flooding caused when Katrina slammed into the area Aug. 29, and would raise and strengthen levees that have settled over the years.
Nagin praised Bush's commitment to nearly double an earlier $1.6 billion package for levee repairs and improvements, saying the president had responded to local residents' call for action.
"I want to say to all New Orleanians, to all businesses, it's time for you to come home, it's time for you to come back to the Big Easy," Nagin said. "We now have the commitment and the funding for hurricane protection at a level that we have never had before."
Calling it a down payment on greater protection for all of south Louisiana, Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the announcement "is a strong signal to our families that they can come home and rebuild."
"I want to thank the president for his commitment to rebuild the New Orleans levees to a true Category 3 level," she said.
The list of improvements is expected to raise the hopes and confidence of displaced residents who have been looking for reassurance that destroyed homes in flooded areas can be rebuilt with some guarantee of increased protection from hurricanes.
The work, however, could take as long as five years for some projects.
Plenty of projects
Powell and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said the Bush request would provide the money needed to complete construction of long-delayed levees in St. Charles Parish, on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish and the New Orleans-to-Venice project in Plaquemines Parish. The request also includes $250 million for wetlands restoration efforts.
The money would come from part of the $62 billion already appropriated by Congress but not yet spent for aid after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
It would be added to $1.6 billion already pending before Congress to pay for the corps' immediate repairs to a variety of breaches in canal levee walls and eroded earthen levees in New Orleans and Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.
Dan Hitchings, head of the corps' Task Force Guardian, said the agency aims to restore and upgrade all levees to pre-Katrina standards by the start of the 2006 hurricane season June 1. The additional improvements, such as reinforcing some levees, will take until Sept. 2007, and the new pumping stations will be finished in three to five years, he said.
The corps is looking at several options to block off the mouths of three canals -- 17th Street, London Avenue and Orleans -- from floodwaters until the pumping stations are completed, Hitchings said. Breaches at the 17th Street and London Avenue canals flooded much of the city during Katrina and have long been a concern as a pathway for hurricane flooding.
"One would be a barrier system that has gates at the lakefront so that they could be opened and closed as needed. That's the preferred option at this point," he said. "Until we are able to get those in place, we'll be leaving the sheet piling in."
Hitchings said it would be up to designers whether to permanently close the canals to the lake or leave a gated structure in place.
"One of the things that is an advantage of putting pumping stations at the lakefront here is that the canal areas will not be subjected to the surge from the lake," he said. "Basically what that means is you will not need to have the level of protection there, that the water will never get that high."
Hitchings said any levee subjected to significant wave action from Lake Pontchartrain or the Gulf of Mexico would be armored with stone or concrete.
"The advantage of armoring is that those storms won't destroy the levees," he said. "You can imagine that a lot more water will run in through an open breach than if it's just running over the top of it."
The extra protection increases the chances that pumping stations inside the levees would still be working, and could remove the water that has made its way in, he said.
Among the protection measures are:
-- A concrete slope on the backside of some levees to prevent water topping them from scouring the levee soil.
-- The use of rocks or "gabion," rocks wrapped in fabric or chicken wire to hold them together, to reduce scour on the back of levees.
-- Adding a rock base on the water side to break down waves before they undermine a levee.
Hitchings said completing the West Bank levee project, which will protect parts of Jefferson Parish from surge moving through Lake Catouache from Barataria Bay, in two years would be "a significant acceleration."
"Under the current, previous plan, the West Bank levee system there would not have been completed until 2018," he said.
The two-year completion of the St. Charles Parish part of the Lake Pontchartrain plan and the raising of levees that is part of the New Orleans-to-Venice plan also represents a major improvement.
The big one
While the levee improvements will significantly reduce the risk from hurricanes smaller than Katrina, several scientists doubt they will block all the effects of larger storms.
Indeed, even Powell and Hitchings agree that storms considered weaker than Category 3 when they hit New Orleans could have stronger force that would lead to topped levees in parts of eastern New Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, even with the levee improvements.
"The levee system in St. Bernard, Orleans east and Plaquemines Parish would be exposed to the same level of flooding as they were before," Hitchings said. "They were overtopped significantly by Katrina."
Blanco and other Louisiana politicians have been lobbying Congress for support for a larger levee and gate system that would protect the city from Category 5 hurricanes.
A spokesman for the governor said she was not invited to the White House event Thursday, which was attended by Nagin and several federal officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Blanco had asked for a meeting with Bush during her trip to Washington, from Sunday night until today, but was told that the president's schedule would not permit a visit, said Roderick Hawkins, a Blanco spokesman. Blanco met Thursday with two top Bush officials, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
Hawkins said Blanco was very pleased with the White House's levee pledge. "Without the levees we don't have homes, without the homes we don't have people," he said. "Today's announcement is a strong signal that New Orleans is coming back."
A White House spokesman would not comment on why Blanco was not invited to the White House event.
"We are continuing to work with everyone at the state and local level. While addressing the levee situation is important to the state, it is critical to New Orleans," spokesman Blair Jones said. "The levee situation is critical to New Orleans, that is why Mayor Nagin was there."
The grandchild test
In a meeting with members of the Louisiana congressional delegation and in several discussions with reporters, Powell said he asked corps officials to apply the "grandchild test," whether they would be confident enough to say that the system is safe enough for their grandchildren to live in New Orleans. He said the corps officials all answered, "Yes, yes, yes."
Earlier this week, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has threatened to keep Congress in session through the Christmas holidays if more money is not earmarked for Katrina recovery, reached an agreement with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., to increase the dollars for levee repairs to $3 billion.
She told reporters Thursday that she credited the grassroots efforts of Louisiana residents and the constant prodding of the delegation and state and city leaders with getting the White House to make Thursday's announcement.
Landrieu said Bush's support will be instrumental in gaining approval for the extra dollars when the supplemental appropriation request returns to the House of Representatives, where support for additional money for Louisiana has been lukewarm.
"This commitment to Category 3 protection, along with some early construction toward Category 5, is a good step, but more steps need to be taken to ensure protection for the entire south Louisiana region," Landrieu said in a statement.
"I will not stop working until all parishes can be assured that this 'never again' defense is in place," she said. "If the Netherlands, at half the size of Louisiana, can protect itself from North Sea storms so strong they occur but once every 10,000 years, surely the United States of America can protect its own citizens from a lake."
Vitter said the commitment made by Bush to restore the levees to their authorized strength is open-ended, despite the price tag quoted by Powell.
"They are committed to do a certain scope of work," he said. "Their estimate is $3.1 billion. My estimate is $3.75 billion. But they've committed to complete the listed projects no matter what the cost."
Vitter, however said he will not be satisfied until a new commission "dominated by outside, independent experts who can work with the Corps of Engineers from start to finish" is in place to oversee the corps' work.
'45 years late'
Joseph Suhayda, a coastal scientist and retired Louisiana State University professor who helped design computer programs allowing the modeling of the effects of storm surge on New Orleans, said the most impressive part of Powell's announcement was the plan to armor the levees and close the canals by building pumping stations at the lake. "Those are significant and will have a positive affect, especially removing the canals as a serious threat," he said.
But the rest of the work, Suhayda said, was "the federal government simply saying they would finally do what they had committed to doing in 1965," when the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project was authorized by Congress. "In that regard, they aren't restoring to Category 3 levels, they're finally getting there, just 45 years late."
Suhayda also said the Bush announcement could take steam from the drive to provide Category 5 protection for New Orleans, a commitment he said is vital to the city's future.
"We've already seen some businesses say they can't come back, or won't come, unless they have that level of protection," he said. "It may be a case of, 'If you don't build it they won't come.'
"I think we're looking at having a city of 350,000 with Category 3 protection, as opposed to a vibrant, growing city of 1.5 million again with Category 5.
"So, while I think the announcement is great as far as it goes, I don't want them to think this is the end of the story," Suhayda said.
Ivor van Heerden, director of the LSU Hurricane Center, said he applauds all the proposals but "in terms of the overall needs of southeast Louisiana, those are little more than Band-Aids."
Van Heerden said Katrina proved the system being rebuilt will not keep the city safe from a Category 3 storm because surge heights were the equivalent of those produced by a Category 1 storm by the time they reached some parts of town where levees failed or were topped.
"The problem is the design criteria they had in the past wasn't for a Category 3 hurricane; Katrina proved that," he said. "The breaches at London Avenue and 17th Street were caused by surges generally associated with a Category 1 storm."
Simulations run by the LSU Hurricane Center showed a true Category 3 storm passing west of the city would flood the entire West Bank and downtown New Orleans with the current protection system in place, van Heerden said.
"The point is, we have to do better if we want even Category 3 level of protection," he said. "And that is very doable.
"Powell said their intention as to build the best levee system in the world. Well, the Dutch have the best system in the world. They built for a 10,000-year flood. We can build for a Category 5 hurricane. It's doable."
U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, agreed that more needs to be done.
"We need a system of protection for our barrier islands and wetlands that will help slow hurricanes before they reach populated areas," Jefferson said in a written statement. "I hope that we can move forward with more commitment in the future for a continued stream of south Louisiana."