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Civil Engineers: New Orleans Still Vulnerable


The American Society of Civil Engineers released a report in New Orleans Friday assessing problems with levees and pumping stations that led to the flooding of the city after Hurricane Katrina hit it a year ago. The engineers say the city is still vulnerable and they call on all levels of government to act with urgency to develop adequate protection for the city, much of which lies below sea level.

The panel of experts from the American Society of Civil Engineers produced a 10-point set of recommendations for overcoming deficiencies in the New Orleans flood-protection system. One of the first problems, they say, is the fact that there is not one system, but several, all under different governmental entities.

David Daniel, a member of the panel who teaches engineering at the University of Texas in Dallas, says political leaders have resisted the idea of having one system, with one person in charge, but, speaking to VOA, he says that is what is needed.

"I do not see the political will or evidence of a political will right now to put someone in charge, but I want to reiterate emphatically, I do not think this will work unless someone is put in charge. The alternative is the potential for catastrophe in the future," he said.

Another member of the panel was retired engineer and New Orleans resident Thomas Jackson, who told VOA that if various government leaders do not come together and act on the recommendations in the report, the city could be destroyed in a future storm.

"I believe that unless this city focuses on the risk of living in the Gulf hurricane belt, this city will not exist," he said. "I think the focus has got to be beyond anything we have ever seen."

He says there needs to be cooperation between all the various governmental units in the area, with help from the federal government, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which builds the levees, and other agencies as well.

The work done over the past year by the Corps of Engineers has been criticized by many local citizens who say it has been inadequate. David Daniel says the focus of the past year's work was on restoring the levees, not necessarily making them better.

"We essentially have levees replaced, but not heightened," said Mr. Daniel. "The system is more or less as it was before Katrina. Therefore, at least in the large context view, the vulnerability of the levee system is really quite similar to what it was before in the sense that the levees have been restored to pre-Katrina levels of authorization."

Thomas Jackson says he is not confident in the current system and is hoping officials will heed the call to make substantial improvements.

"My own 89-year-old mother, who is now in San Antonio, Texas, will remain there, because I do not think that is yet [safe] and I think it will be a while before it does [get safe]," he added.

City officials have set evacuation procedures in place for future hurricane threats and members of the civil engineer panel agree that, for the time being, that is the best response. David Daniel says New Orleans was spared the main force of Katrina because it moved to the east of the city and yet it still caused the levees to leak and break at over 50 separate locations. He says a direct hit by a more powerful storm would have an even worse effect.

"The only question is when, not if. We must be prepared for it and we must make use of the calculations that are being made that show the potential impact of even larger hurricanes striking at different points," explained Mr. Daniel. "It is a genuine and true threat and, certainly, there is no assurance whatsoever that even worse conditions could not develop with a different hurricane."

Daniel says the main point he and the other civil engineers on the panel want to make is that safety should be the first priority. He says the technical ability to protect New Orleans exists. What is now needed is the political will to make it happen.

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